From fires to earthquakes, UM researchers launch disaster risk website

Disaster data
University of Montana associate professor Rebecca Bendick, right, and UM graduate student Carson Macpherson-Krutsky launched Missoula Ready this week with plans to grow Disaster Ready website to other cities. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT

Rebecca Bendick arrived in Pakistan in 2005 shortly after a devastating earthquake rocked portions of Kashmir, killing more than 90,000 people. It was also there, while taking scientific measurements in the field, that she had an idea.

More than a decade later, Bendick, an associate professor of geosciences at the University of Montana, has teamed up with a graduate student to create a disaster preparedness website to help residents in Missoula County both understand and prepare for known local hazards.

“The moment I really started thinking about this was in Pakistan in the 2005 Kashmir earthquake,” said Bendick. “I worked a lot on educational tools for the developing world, only to come home to realize that my neighbors didn’t have access to the information they needed to make good decisions.”

To address those concerns, Bendick and graduate student Carson Macpherson-Krutsky set out to design a new web-based application to ensure Missoula County residents understood the local risks and took the necessary steps to prepare for them.

The product, dubbed Missoula Ready, goes live this week and includes data provided by a number of sources, including flood information from Missoula County, fire data from the Missoula Fire Science Lab, and seismic history from the U.S. Geological Survey.

“We developed a web tool that basically delivers location-based natural hazard information to the residents of Missoula County,” said Macpherson-Krutsky. “The main ones are wildfire, and most of the residents here know that one. But there’s also flooding along the Clark Fork River and a little lesser-known one is the earthquake potential.”

Standing on the Kim Williams bridge on Tuesday with the rising waters of the Clark Fork River running swiftly below, the two researchers considered the application’s depth of data. While floods and fires are known risks living in western Montana, earthquakes don’t often register on one’s list of potential disasters.

But history says they should.

“There’s actually five active faults in the county, though a lot of people don’t realize it,” said Macpherson-Krutsky. “The thing about Montana earthquakes is they have really long recurrence intervals, so they only happen every few thousands of years. But there’s a potential for really large earthquakes in Montana.”

Bendick cites recent history, including the 1959 Hebgen Lake earthquake, which measured 7.3 and killed 28 people. In 1983, a 6.9 magnitude quake killed several people near Challis, Idaho.

The shifting earth and the science behind it has led Bendick around the globe responding to devastating earthquakes, including Nepal and Japan. She helped with an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system after a 2004 tidal wave killed 230,000 people.

“I’ve gone places that have been devastated and I’ve heard from people again and again that they had no idea that it could happen, and if they had known they would have made different decisions to protect themselves,” said Bendick. “We can’t do the day and the time of an earthquake – the science is not there yet. But we can let people know in a sort of forecasting sense that this is a high-risk area.”

The two researchers note that the information has always been there, though it’s held by multiple agencies in multiple locations. In its current format, Bendick said, the data means little to the people who need it the most.

But like a meteorologist forecasting the weather using complex scientific models, the new application presents equally complex data in a user-friendly format.

“All the data is designed for expert users and planners, but not for people who live in a place,” said Bendick. “The people who live in a place are the people who most need to know what the hazards are and what to do about them. This brings all this information to one place and translates it into a form anyone can use.”Capture

As designed, the new application allows users to enter an address or click on a location. The application populates the response with known hazards, along with their likely intensity, historical information and worst-case scenario.

It also provides information on how to mitigate risks and provides details on emergency response, including how long that response may take. Future versions will include real-time data on ongoing incidents.

“Our biggest challenge is conveying specific risks to the public, especially if those risks are geographically unique,” said Missoula County Commissioner Cola Rowley. “Our hope is that residents will use this information to increase awareness and overall preparedness for the hazards that exist in our county.”

With Missoula Ready set to launch, the two researchers plan to grow the business arm of the new application, taking Hazard Ready to other cities. Disaster data can be prepared for any location, from earthquakes along the Pacific Coast to the spread of Zika virus in the South.

“This gives people the information to make judicious choices,” said Bendick. “The idea is to give people everything they need to be prepared for a disaster.”