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Coming Home: Geosciences professor studies resiliency after major storms 

Photo of Destruction from Homes.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Christopher G. Burton stood in Diamondhead, Mississippi, observing what was left behind after the storm made landfall as a Category 3 hurricane. In the midst of the rubble, on the foundation where a home stood just days prior, he picked up a photograph.  Here, family members posed together in happier times before everything was lost.

Burton, an assistant professor of geosciences in the College of Sciences and Mathematics, said that was his “Ah-ha!” moment. That was the moment when he realized that his research on natural hazards and disasters, such as hurricanes, was about more than the event itself and its impact on engineered environments like homes and buildings.

His research was suddenly about people, too. He couldn’t stop thinking about the smiling family in the water damaged photograph. Who were they? Did they survive the storm? Where did they go? Will they come back, or if not, who or what will come back?

Today, Burton focuses his research on the interaction between natural hazards, the built environment, and social phenomena to better understand why adverse impacts from hazards occur differentially across space and why some communities are in a better position to recover from damaging events than others.

“Without humans, there is no risk or chance for disaster,” Burton explained.

The social phenomena, Burton said, is often split into two overarching topics: social vulnerability and resilience. Social vulnerability encompasses characteristics within social systems that create the potential for harm or loss from hazard events. Factors include poverty level, elderly who may have difficulty evacuating a storm, and population density.

Resilience is a community’s ability to prepare for, respond to, and recover from hazard events.

Damaged home left by destruction of hurricane.

“When we talk about storms, for instance, different areas of a city, state, country, and even region can face the same hazard threat, but risk and resilience are totally different as the characteristics that affect these concepts will vary across space,” Burton explained.

Burton has spent time in 31 countries studying the risk associated with storms as well as earthquakes and how different areas are able to recover. He’s trying to answer questions like:

What actually drives resilience? Can we predict recovery outcomes? How do the concepts of risk, social vulnerability, and resilience overlap to determine potential for loss or recovery?

The answers to those questions, Burton says, can influence public policy and aid in developing tools to reduce risks. In his worldwide travels, Burton has discovered that most people think alike when it comes to risk.

“We’re more reactive than we are proactive,” he said.

But, Burton has discovered that people are willing to work together to solve problems. His current research involves studying the potential impacts of an environmental event on the Gulf Coast. This work builds upon the project he was working on when he found the family photograph in Diamondhead, Mississippi. During that project, Burton was still a geography student in the University of South Carolina. Here, Burton and a team of researchers plotted hundreds of points—in 1x1 square mile increments—along the entirety of the Mississippi Coast. The research team took photos facing north, south, east, and west at each point, and then repeated the photo-taking process every six months for five years, employing what is referred to as repeat photography. By returning to the same points now that nearly 13 years have passed since the storm, and by reapplying the repeat photographic method, Burton and his research team will be able to develop spatial and temporal models of the recovery of the Mississippi Gulf Coast from 2005 to present. In addition, he and his team will use the recovery data to concentrate on developing statistical models that might help to explain the drivers of recovery along the Mississippi coast both in the short-term and long-term and at different scales.

Today, he is an assistant professor who was hired as part of Auburn’s cluster hire initiative. Burton is a part of the CHESS cluster, which stands for Climate, Human and Earth System Sciences Strategic Cluster Hire.

As part of the cluster, Burton is providing crucial expertise needed to:

  • understand what threats global environmental changes pose for vulnerable communities and what responses could be most effective in reducing risk to those communities;
  • understand the effectiveness of current policies and practices for hazard management and disaster risk reduction;
  • measure social concepts—vulnerability, resilience, social capital, and recovery;
  • understand the interdependencies between social, biophysical, and built environment systems that generate risk, vulnerability, and resilience; and
  • model cascading effects following damaging hazard events.

Burton’s study of human-environmental interactions was recently supported by a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration through the Mississippi-Alabama Sea Grant Consortium. With the grant, Burton hopes to develop an integrated analytical framework that accounts for potential hazard impacts as well as community resilience in order to develop a new generation of resilience metrics that are context-specific and validated with observed data and stakeholder participation in cities (i.e. Biloxi, Mississippi and Gulf Shores, Alabama).

In other words, Burton wants to create a decision support system by which cities can enhance decision making with regard to potential hazards and ultimately increase resilience through:

1) improved quantitative assessments of risk, social vulnerability, and resilience; 2) improved risk awareness and communication; 3) informed mitigation and planning; and 4) increased improvisation and social learning.

“There is an increasing need for reliable resilience indicators and a measurement framework for disaster mitigation, preparedness, and recovery planning,” Burton said. “Previous work indicates that the best available metrics for measuring resilience lack validation and tend to only provide a broad-brush approach that neglects hazard and local context.”

The concern with using metrics that ignore natural hazard context with a lack of validation is that cities could make misinformed planning decisions, especially if dimensions of resilience pertinent to specific hazards are excluded, or by contrast if weakly influential dimensions are overrepresented.

Burton believes his work will be beneficial to administrations in small towns and large urban metropolises.

“Ultimately, our vision is to fully integrate the methodology and suite of tools developed to provide decision-makers with an aligned risk and resilience management framework. This will help increase the visibility of Auburn as a research institution.”

Last Updated: 10/08/2018