Sunday, August 27, 2017

Hurricane Harvey, Texas, and All of Us

This has been quite the extraordinary week with the solar eclipse (amazing) on August 21 followed only a few days later by Hurricane Harvey (horrific), which is causing "epic, catastrophic" flooding in Houston, Texas,  the 4th most populated city in the US. 

The path of the hurricane can be viewed here. 

To emphasize the significance of this natural disaster, which has been called a one in a 500 year flood, major news sites such as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times, have all removed their paywalls, which is also being already referred to as the worst natural disaster to ever hit Texas.

You may ask, why worry about what is happening in Texas? First of all, this natural disaster hits "close to home." As an academic,  I know many faculty at universities in Texas and to see some closing down, making tough decisions as to what to do with students, and when to reopen,  reminds me of Hurricane Sandy back in October 2012 when my daughter was a college freshman and her college (as did many in the affected areas of the Northeast) closed, and she could not even make it back to Amherst because there was no public transportation due to fuel shortages. A niece of mine had just started her freshman year at Tulane University in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck but she had had sufficient warning that she was able to get a flight back to Kansas and that university was closed for an entire semester. And my daughter had spent the summer before her senior year of college as an intern researcher at the marvelous Lunar and Planetary Institute, which is located in Houston. I remember her flying from Sweden where she was visiting me when I had an appointment as a Visiting Professor at the University of Gothenburg and flying then to Houston, which had had some rain, and I was worried at that point about flooding. Now, because of Hurricane Harvey, there are very few passable roads in the surrounding Houston area, flights are halted at both Houston airports (how would crews and workers even make it there?), hospitals are without power and running water, and folks are being told to shelter in place and to bring axes to their attics so that they can break through attics to the rooftops to be rescued. 911 operators are overwhelmed with calls.

There are many questions being raised as, for example, why was Houston not evacuated? 
And the relatively new FEMA Director is saying that recovery from the deadly Harvey disaster "could take years."

The last time I was in Texas was last May, when the NSF-funded Workshop on Disrupting Illicit Supply Networks, took place at the University of Texas Austin. It was a fascinating workshop with a focus on human trafficking with very dedicated researchers and practitioners in attendance. Since Hurricane Harvey struck, I have sent messages to operations research colleagues at Texas A&M University, UTAustin, and Rice University, which is in Houston, and, although I have not heard back (yet) from them, I do hope that they are in a safe place.

If you recall Hurricane Katrina, which was the costliest natural disaster, and occurred in August 2005 (Superstorm Sandy was the second costliest one in the US),  the Annual INFORMS Conference (which is the conference of my major professional society) was supposed to take place that Fall in New Orleans - the conference did take place but was moved to San Francisco that November. This year, our INFORMS Conference is supposed to take place in Houston in October! Time will tell but, in the meantime, we have all those dealing and struggling with Hurricane Harvey in our hearts and prayers.

Houston, not only because of its size is so crucial to the US, but it is also an oil and gas hub. Hence, there could be major economic ramifications, and perhaps even environmental ones due to the destruction by Hurricane Harvey. And, it was the primary residence of the Isenberg family (Gene Isenberg was the former CEO of Nabors Industries) and our School of Management at UMass Amherst bears his name.

I do a lot of work in the disaster research area and also teach a course on humanitarian logistics and in recent papers we have focused on, among other topics, issues of coordination post disasters of relief agencies using game theory. A paper of ours on the topic is: A Generalized Nash Equilibrium Network Model for Post-Disaster Humanitarian Relief, Anna Nagurney, Emilio Alvarez Flores, and Ceren Soylu, Transportation Research E 95: (2016), pp 1-18. For a general audience I wrote an article on the topic for The Conversation: How disaster relief efforts could be improved with game theory. Also recently, we published an article on the importance of communications in emergencies: FirstNet for emergency communications: 6 questions answered. 

And my most recent co-edited book, with Ilias S. Kotsireas and Panos M. Pardalos, which includes very timely papers, even on evacuation networks, is: Dynamics of Disasters; Key Concepts, Models, Algorithms, and Insights.

Thinking of all those in Texas suffering through this natural disaster and the rains are to continue for several more days!