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Eric Tate: Studying the Human Costs of Flooding

Posted on June 6th, 2012
IIHR Assistant Research Engineer Eric Tate.

IIHR Assistant Research Engineer Eric Tate.

Hurricane Katrina was the costliest hurricane in U.S. history, with damages totaling more than $70 billion. It was also one of the deadliest, taking the lives of nearly 2,000 people.

It was the hurricane’s human impact that started Eric Tate on his journey to the University of Iowa, where in 2011 he became a member of the UI’s first interdisciplinary faculty cluster. Tate, who is an assistant professor of geography and an assistant research engineer at IIHR, was shocked by Katrina’s devastating effects on the people of the Gulf Coast. “Most of the time with floods, we’re thinking about buildings and damage and dollar losses,” Tate says. “But Katrina was about people, and engineering is not really the place to study people.”

Katrina marked a defining moment for the young engineer. He decided to return to graduate school, with the goal of studying the human costs of natural disasters.

He went to the University of South Carolina’s Department of Geography to study social vulnerability modeling. His advisor, Susan Cutter, builds GIS models that help describe spatial variation in human vulnerability to floods. “I saw it as a way to do everything I was interested in,” Tate says. His degrees in engineering and his previous work experience had given him a love of GIS modeling, hydrology, and maps as a method of communicating information. His new work in social vulnerability modeling brought in a fascinating and crucial aspect of flood modeling—what happens to the people in the floodplain, and why?

Social vulnerability studies a number of questions that flood research has historically ignored. “What characteristics of people, of society, make certain people more vulnerable?” Tate says. “Where are they? Who are they? What kinds of things do we need to account for in planning? How do we model this?”

Research has shown that certain characteristics of people and communities can make them more vulnerable to the impacts of flooding: the disabled, the poor, racial and ethnic minorities, people with health problems, recent immigrants, the elderly, single mothers, and young children tend to have more difficulty with floods. “The idea of social vulnerability modeling is to identify these groups and try to model their numbers and their locations and produce a single number,” Tate explains. “You can look across a community and say, well, we know where the floodplains are. … But where, in terms of social aspects, where are the most vulnerable people?”

This information can enable community planners and others to put limited resources where they will do the most good, in human terms. It’s a new way of thinking about flood impacts—putting the human cost, rather than economic loss, front and center.

“If you look at a range of our public policies, they’re mostly focused on dollars and infrastructure,” Tate says. “You really need to assess human impacts on par with economic impacts.” He believes even a small investment in the social side of flood mitigation could produce a big payout. “Just a little bit of investment can go a long way.”

After completing his PhD, Tate came to the University of Iowa as part of the water sustainability faculty cluster. He thinks the multidisciplinary approach is key to solving complex problems. “In order to solve the really big problems in our society … you have to be able to work across disciplines, or you can’t get holistic solutions.”

As an engineer himself, Tate has one big advantage in bridging the gap between engineering and geography – he speaks the language. Language gaps are real, he says, and make interdisciplinary work harder. “Sometimes people are talking about the exact same thing, but they just use different terms.”

Tate has found his colleagues at Iowa to be open to new ideas and collaborations. “There’s a real willingness to listen and try to understand these other dimensions,” he says, adding, “Collaboration goes both ways, or multiple directions, and I’m just as open to trying to understand other disciplinary perspectives. I think there’s nothing but promise.”

This semester, Tate is teaching two new courses. He works with both graduate and undergraduate students. He loves helping students get to that “ah-ha” moment. “You can just see it in them, the understanding,” Tate says. “I love that moment! I keep trying to replicate that.”

He and his family are enjoying small-town life in Iowa. “I was kind of worried,” Tate admits. “This is the smallest town I’ve ever lived in.” But he says they appreciate Iowa City’s funky, unique atmosphere, and they especially like the freedom their two children have. “We live in a neighborhood that’s just packed with kids,” Tate says. “Kids just show up and ask if my children can play. They may go off about the neighborhood for hours, and I don’t feel worried about their safety, which is a big change from where I’m from.”

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