Building infrastructure resilience in the face of community and societal disasters

Purdue civil engineering professors Julio Ramirez (right) and Antonio Bobet are part of the multi-institution, NSF-funded Network Coordination Office of the National Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure (NHERI), headquartered at Purdue. (Photo credit: Purdue University/Mark Simons)

The vulnerability of existing civil infrastructure to natural hazards presents one of the greatest risks to life, safety and property that the world faces today. It also impacts the resiliency and sustainability of communities. And in the United States, the frequency and scale of natural disasters have grown in recent decades.

Since 1980, the U.S. has experienced weather- and climate-related disasters costing a total of $2.155 trillion, or an average of $54 billion per year. Recent experiences with multiple hazards, such as the Dec. 10–11 tornado event in Kentucky, brought back to the forefront the historical record from Hurricanes Ida and Katrina in Louisiana and tornados in Joplin, Missouri — and internationally, events like the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the swarm of earthquakes in New Zealand — which have demonstrated the long timescales associated with recovery from damage to civil infrastructure.

A researcher measures a 4-meter erosion of soil under the base of the house due to a rapid tsunami-triggered flow of water in Sendai, Japan. (Photo credit: Lesley Ewing, courtesy of American Society of Civil Engineers).

I’ve seen this devastation firsthand in multiple reconnaissance missions in the U.S. and around the globe. I learned about the destruction that earthquakes can inflict on non-ductile reinforced concrete structures that were designed before modern seismic standards in the U.S., and contain elements (such as joints, columns and walls) with insufficient or improperly detailed reinforcing steel.

My goal as a co-principal in a National Science Foundation (NSF) Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES) Grand Challenge project was to reduce the vulnerability to damage and/or collapse of these non‐ductile structures built before the 1970s in the U.S. The team’s research yielded insights into quick identification and cost‐effective methods for improving earthquake performance for such structures.

But one individual can’t do it alone, nor can even many if they work separately. The scientific community has recognized the need for interdisciplinary collaboration to reduce the loss of life, economic damage, and community disruption caused by these natural hazards.

The NSF established the Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure (NHERI) to address infrastructure vulnerabilities and prevent natural hazards from becoming societal disasters. A shared-use national facility, NHERI provides a network of state-of-the-art laboratories, cyberinfrastructure, computational modeling and simulation capabilities, and convergence science, as well as a Network Coordination Office (NCO). The NCO coordinates access to this world-class research infrastructure and leads governance, education, and community outreach.

The community of NHERI researchers, educators and students encompasses a large group of universities, industry partners, and research institutions in the U.S. and abroad. NHERI has been renewed through Sept. 30, 2025, and includes a separate research infrastructure award for the NCO. The NCO, located at Purdue, serves as the administrative headquarters for a nationwide network of 11 research facilities.

Engineers on a data reconnaissance team survey the impacts of Hurricane Maria in Ponce, Puerto Rico. (Photo credit: NHERI RAPID)

On Oct. 1, 2021, the NSF issued a $5 million award renewing the NCO, which, along with Purdue, includes partner institutions The University of Texas at San Antonio, Texas Tech University, and University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. The NCO aims to build a global, multi-hazard, collaborative research community and research infrastructure focused on mitigating the impacts of earthquakes and windstorms, as well as the related hazards of tsunamis and storm surge on civil infrastructure — and to cultivate the next generation of natural hazards researchers and educators.

The Purdue NCO provides leadership and multiple services to the greater community of natural hazards researchers, practitioners and students in the U.S. and internationally. It leads the research agenda; coordinates experimental and post-event field research; disseminates research findings; partners with international facilities; and educates and inspires the next generation of natural hazards engineers and social scientists.

Supported by the new grant, the NCO is responsible for undertaking the following activities for NHERI:

· Convene and support NHERI governance for network leadership.

· Update the NHERI Science Plan.

· Let users access experimental facilities and field resources through a web portal.

· Conduct educational outreach for students, researchers and practicing engineers.

· Disseminate knowledge and accelerate the transfer of research into practice.

· Communicate information about resources, events, and research and education.

· Form national and international partnerships for a global, multi-hazard community.

Through the NCO’s ongoing community coordination of NHERI’s human, experimental, field, cyberinfrastructure, and computational modeling and simulation resources, researchers will be empowered to uncover new knowledge and generate novel innovation to enhance national resilience and sustainability of civil infrastructure — all with the goal of fewer fatalities, less interruption to societal functions, and reduced economic loss.

Julio A. Ramirez, PhD, FACI (Fellow of the American Concrete Institute), and Distinguished Member of ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers)

Karl H. Kettelhut Professor in Civil Engineering and NHERI-NCO Center Director, Lyles School of Civil Engineering

College of Engineering

Purdue University

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