Homeland Security funds UNC center to study natural disasters in coastal areas

February 27, 2008
Richard Luettich, D.Sc.

Richard Luettich, D.Sc.

When storms threaten America’s coastlines, emergency managers will have the latest scientific information to prepare and protect our coastlines and citizens, thanks to a multi-million dollar grant to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Rick Luettich, D.Sc., professor of environmental sciences and engineering, will be the grant’s principal investigator in charge of research. Luettich is also the director of UNC’s Institute for Marine Sciences.

With the grant, UNC will partner with other universities, government agencies and industry representatives to create and direct research efforts for the Center of Excellence for the Study of Natural Disasters, Coastal Infrastructure and Emergency Management. The research consortium builds on UNC’s strength in coastal hazard modeling, coastal planning and information technology.

According to DHS, the grant will provide UNC-led research at least $2.5 million a year for six years, and possibly considerably more as the center develops. UNC will team with Jackson State University in Mississippi to carry out an education and outreach component to disseminate and implement the research into practice. Other details, such as naming partner institutions, are still being finalized.

“The combination of UNC-Chapel Hill’s distinguished record of excellence in research and our state’s ample experience in dealing with natural disasters makes UNC the perfect candidate to host this Homeland Security Center of Excellence,” said Rep. David Price, who represents Chapel Hill in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“As chairman of the Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, I have been a strong supporter of the department’s Centers of Excellence, and I want to congratulate UNC and its partner institutions on this stellar achievement. I look forward to the benefits our whole country will enjoy from the work of the new center,” Price said.

“This grant is an example of how the hard work by scientists at UNC and our partner universities pays off in very tangible ways, for the people of North Carolina and across the country,” said UNC Chancellor James Moeser. “It will help protect our homes, our businesses, our environment and our livelihoods.”

“This grant is a very exciting success for our entire team and specifically for North Carolina where much of the research will be focused,” said Luettich, who is also a professor of marine sciences in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences. “Scientists have learned a great deal from recent natural disasters, including hurricane Katrina. While we’ve made a lot of progress modeling these extreme events, this grant will allow our national team of experts to take our work to a much higher level. This is very rewarding work for the scientists, because we’ve all seen – most of us first-hand – how much of an impact these events have on people’s lives.”

Luettich is internationally known for his work in storm surge and other coastal modeling and is currently serving on two National Research Council committees of the National Academy of Engineering that are reviewing the hurricane vulnerability of the greater New Orleans region.

The center’s executive director will be Gavin Smith, who will come to UNC from the consulting firm PBS&J, where he was a principal. Smith formerly worked as the director of the Office of Recovery and Renewal for the governor of Mississippi and was instrumental in that state’s Hurricane Katrina recovery program.

“I look forward to working with government officials – from the federal level to small coastal communities – to share findings generated by center researchers. It will help them all make more informed decisions,” said Smith, a research professor in the department of city and regional planning. Smith also worked in the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management from 1996 to 2002.

UNC has used similar grants as a platform, enabling researchers to attract even more grant money and build other programs.


School of Public Health contact: Ramona DuBose, director of communications, (919) 966-7467 or ramona_dubose@unc.edu.