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Regaining Ground: In aftermath of Katrina and Rita, scientists make case for coastal recovery balancing ecology with economy

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Long-time Gulf Coast residents have typically reacted to hurricane forecasts like sightings of alligators in their backyards: They might not walk outside but they probably aren’t going to abandon their homes either.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita may have changed all that. In Texas, residents were particularly aware of Rita’s potential for danger thanks in part to visualizations created by the Center for Space Research at The University of Texas at Austin, drawing on a range of data including surveys from the university’s Bureau of Economic Geology.

The data helped researchers illustrate which areas of the coast were at greatest risk. Images that simulated floodwaters submerging Galveston and soaking the coastal plain gave citizens a thorough picture of what their neighborhoods might look like under a few feet of water. Broadcast before the storm on cable news outlets and printed in major daily newspapers, the visualizations helped induce many residents to consider evacuation.

Sequence of images showing impact on the Galveston region of hypothetical storm surges varying in intensity from 4.5 to 19.0 feet Sequence of computer-simulated images showing the predicted inundation from a theoretical design storm, “Hurricane Carly.” Slides show impact on the Galveston region of hypothetical storm surges varying in intensity from 4.5 to 19.0 feet. The images were created for the Governor’s Division of Emergency Management by the Center for Space Research at The University of Texas at Austin.

View six images: < Previous | Next >

Since 1997, Jim Gibeaut and colleagues at the Bureau of Economic Geology have used one of the technologies behind the visualizations—LiDAR (light detection and ranging)—to map landforms along the Texas coast. Gibeaut first applied the method to study hurricane damage in 2000, when the Honduran government asked him to survey devastation in the wake of Hurricane Mitch.

Researchers at the university have since combined the survey data with storm surge models created by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The result is a precise and meticulous map that shows how and when a storm surge will affect the coastline.

Gibeaut sees the work as part of his public mission as a research scientist.

“Geologists need to make these kinds of images intuitive,” says Gibeaut.

BY Joshua Zaffos

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  Updated 24 April 2006
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