UNC-Chapel Hill to lead new Coastal Resilience Center

Duke Energy's Jason Pearce, top, and Brandon Hicks repair a power line to a home in Beaufort after it was downed by a fallen tree during Hurricane Arthur on July 4, 2014.
Duke Energy's Jason Pearce, top, and Brandon Hicks repair a power line to a home in Beaufort after it was downed by a fallen tree during Hurricane Arthur on July 4, 2014. cseward@newsobserver.com

The Department of Homeland Security announced Tuesday that UNC-Chapel Hill has been awarded $20 million over five years to lead a new national research center to help prepare for coastal natural disasters such as floods and hurricanes.

The Coastal Resilience Center of Excellence will conduct research and do public education to improve the nation’s ability to protect people, infrastructure and economies from catastrophic natural disasters.

“This is a momentous announcement, one that we’re very proud of, one that we believe will bear a great deal of fruit,” said U.S. Rep David Price, a Democrat whose district includes Chapel Hill.

In addition to basic research, the program will inform policymakers and emergency management teams, provide research opportunities for students, and educate the public about ways to mitigate harm from natural disasters, said Rick Luettich, principle investigator at the new center and director of UNC’s Institute of Marine Sciences.

Gavin Smith, director of the new center and professor at UNC-CH, also announced that a new coastal resilience certificate program will be made available to graduate students at UNC-CH starting this fall.

Resilience, Luettich said, is defined by the ability to function effectively during a “severe shock” as well as the ability to recover.

As many as 20 other universities will be partners with UNC-CH in a national consortium that also includes federal agencies such as FEMA and NOAA.

Congress called for “a university-based center or centers for homeland security” in the Homeland Security Act of 2002, which also established the Department of Homeland Security. The Centers of Excellence bring together universities, agencies and companies to conduct “groundbreaking research to address homeland security challenges,” according to the program’s website.

Price said the Department of Homeland Security has expanded its mission to address all hazards. Rising sea levels resulting from global warming and other consequences of climate change makes the coast especially vulnerable to natural disasters, he said.

Two other Centers of Excellence were established this year: one at the University of Houston that will focus on immigration research, and another at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that will study infrastructure resilience. Nine other Centers of Excellence are currently in operation.

UNC-CH was previously the co-leader, along with Jackson State University in Mississippi, of the Coastal Hazards Center, a Center of Excellence established in 2008 in response to Hurricane Katrina. The funding for that program expires this month.

Rather than renew that program, the Department of Homeland Security sought applications for something new: the Coastal Resilience Center.

The change from Coastal Hazards Center to Coastal Resilience Center represents a global policy shift in the way researchers and policymakers think of natural disasters, said Smith, the director. Hazards are a natural process that become disasters when we place fragile infrastructure in their way, he said.

In an effort to curtail the effects of such disasters, the Coastal Resilience Center will build on aspects of the research conducted by the Coastal Hazards Center, including storm surge modeling to predict the effects of hurricanes. The University of Rhode Island will be a partner in this research, applying model predictions to the large coastal cities of New England.

Jackson State University will continue to lead education programs, as it did for the Coastal Hazards Center.

Rimler: 919-829-4526