Calm, Before and After Storms

Disaster Resilience Expert Works to Prevent Damage, or Rebuild
by DANIEL OYEFUSI ’19 | Photo by John T. Consoli

Sandra Knight has flown over interstates and homes submerged by floods, examined communities toppled by tornadoes and worked with cities and states following the type of damage that overwhelmed Houston, Florida and Puerto Rico last summer.

Knight, a senior research engineer in the Center for Disaster Resilience, has learned about such devastation while in senior positions at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. A specialist in disaster resilience and prevention, she advises communities on how to rebuild and shares with Terp the mistakes that she too often sees before a natural disaster strikes.

What lessons can we take away from the hurricanes of 2017?

To really prepare, we need to think about the impossible. No one imagined we could have gotten rainfall like we did in Houston, or three large hurricanes right in a row. We have to think well beyond high-probability events and begin to look at low-probability, high-impact events. We have to think about how we design where we live. Zoning, development requirements, building codes—those sorts of things from an urban planning and engineering perspective are really what make people safe in the long run.

How is climate change affecting storm damage and flooding?

We’re still learning how climate change is impacting precipitation, but it’s definitely changing some weather patterns. These hurricanes seem to be more intense. The waters are warmer, and that’s the fuel for the hurricanes. They went from a tropical storm to Category 5 really fast.

What can people in storm- and flood-prone areas do?

We spend a lot of time thinking about retirement or maybe who we’re going to marry, but we should think about where we live and when we make an investment in our home, we need to do our research and make sure it’s safe for our family. If you live in a flood zone and you have a mortgage, you have a one in four chance of your house flooding. Eighty percent of the people flooded (in Houston) didn’t have insurance.

What’s something memorable you’ve seen regarding disaster recovery?

When I was in FEMA in 2011, hundreds of tornadoes came across the South and the Midwest in the spring. After the disaster, my team would go in and determine how the wind destroyed the buildings and then used that information to improve building codes. We had a clinic afterwards with all the local and state emergency managers and the mayors of these places. And I remember hearing this mayor of a small town that lost 27 people. He was a local farmer, and he talked about how he wanted to build back stronger to save people’s lives. Those kind of compelling stories make you get up and go to work every day and want to do it better.


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