It’s been eight months since Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, and Rice University researchers haven’t let a minute go by without putting their minds and talents to solving the problems caused by the devastating storm.
With the help of federal and other grants to Rice for more than $1.2 million, they are tackling the short- and long-term questions prompted by Harvey.
The latest is a National Institutes of Health (NIH) exploratory/developmental research grant for $482,000 to Rice, the city of Houston and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to develop an environmental health and housing registry. The registry’s goal is to help the community understand the impact of storms like Harvey on public health.
Members of the public can join the registry here: https://harveyregistry.rice.edu.
“In the face of Harvey’s catastrophic flooding, our Houston community chose to respond with strength, compassion and creativity,” said Rice Provost Marie Lynn Miranda, the project’s lead investigator. “This collaborative work aims to ensure that we understand fully the social and environmental impacts of Harvey, with the goal of developing tailored interventions to help people in the aftermath of large-scale weather disasters.”
The data will be housed on Rice’s Urban Data Platform, administered by the Kinder Institute for Urban Research, and will be used by the university, the city and the Houston Public Health Department to research the storm’s impact. The platform is intended to be a secure repository of geographically coded data for the Houston metropolitan area that facilitates cross-disciplinary research and community investigations.
It’s also one of many initiatives Rice has undertaken as part of its Vision for the Second Century, Second Decade (V2C2), which empowers campus researchers to engage with Houston and improve the quality of life for its citizens.
Seed funding provided by the Environmental Defense Fund and the Cullen Trust for Health Care helped develop the concept for the registry, which was inspired by a similar project that grew in the wake of the World Trade Center attack in 2001.
Greater Houston residents can now join the registry to have their experience of the storm represented in the long-term data about Harvey.
“To our knowledge, it’s the first environmental health and housing registry,” said Loren Raun, chief environmental science officer for the Houston Health Department and a Rice professor in the practice of statistics, environmental analysis and decision-making. “We want everyone to register and help us widen our understanding of the impacts of the storm.”
She said the registry form should take no more than 10 minutes to complete. It will ask for information about how residents were affected during the storm and in the months since.
“We’ll ask about the people themselves, if they were flooded and how many feet of water they had in their homes and for how long, and about their health at the time and since Harvey,” Raun said.
Along with the NIH grant, Rice researchers have also won a series of RAPID grants from the National Science Foundation. RAPID grants support studies that need to move quickly before essential data disappears. All the researchers who received such grants expected the unique environmental conditions left behind by Harvey to deteriorate after the storm.
The grants ranging from $40,000 to nearly $200,000 went to seven Rice scientists and their colleagues:
— Rick Wilson, to study those who decided to leave and those who decided to follow mandatory evacuation orders prior to Harvey’s landfall. The research will provide insight about what motivates people to leave or stay, especially as the latter scenario places enormous stress on first responders.
— Lauren Stadler, to study floodwater contaminated by microbes and chemicals that endanger populations in the wake of the storm. The data will help assess hazards after future flooding events and help design emergency response treatment systems.
— Dominic Boyer, to investigate how residents of flood-prone areas in Houston, particularly Greenspoint and Meyerland, and other communities decide whether to remain and rebuild, relocate to other areas of the city or relocate outside the city.
— Adrienne Correa, to evaluate the impact of freshwater runoff from Harvey on organisms that live in and around coral reefs, particularly around the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary.
— Scott Egan, to look at the evolution of populations that colonize new habitats and mate with similar, highly mobile populations in a process called spatial sorting, especially after rapid dispersal from events like Harvey. The project is performing the first large-scale field tests of spatial sorting in generating rapid evolution of the red-shouldered soapberry bug.
— Thomas Miller, to study how the region’s native ant species responded to Harvey’s extreme flooding to see how they were disrupted. This will test the hypothesis that the storm favored an increase in abundance and extent of invasive species like fire ants and tawny crazy ants.
— Sarah Bengston, to study ants as well, but with a focus on how individuals of a common species behave as they repopulate decimated areas. The project will lead to better understanding of how native species’ response to severe storms can predict plant and animal survival and population health.
In addition, Rice is supporting Harvey research by funding nine projects through its Rice Houston Engagement and Recovery Effort (HERE), all of which aim to make the city and region stronger and more sustainable following the storm’s devastation.
Miranda is also leading a project to show how mixed toxins of the sort often spread by storms and other natural disasters can affect an entire population over space and time. Through the project backed by a $1.7 million NIH grant, the team will build tools that reveal environmental threats to populations after events like Harvey.