University of South Alabama, Office of Public Relations

May 31, 2006
Contact: Renee Paul, USA Office of Public Relations, (251) 460-6640

NSF Recognizes USA Engineer for Wave and Storm Surge Research: Goal to Protect Property, Lives on Hurricane-Prone Gulf Coast

The National Science Foundation has selected University of South Alabama coastal engineer Dr. Qin “Jim” Chen to receive one of its most prestigious awards in support of state-of-the-art wave and storm surge research that could help save property and lives along the hurricane-prone Gulf Coast.

The five-year, $400,000 NSF Faculty Early Career Development Award will help Chen—who won the prestigious award in a national competition—better predict waves and surges in coastal regions, especially during hurricanes. The award is one of the NSF’s highest honors, supporting the careers of outstanding junior faculty members who are most likely to become the academic leaders of the future.

Dr. Qin “Jim” Chen, assistant professor of civil engineering at USA, speaks at a news conference in the College of Engineering about a prestigious new NSF award that will allow him to further state-of-the-art research on wave and storm surge prediction. During the event, Chen introduced USA civil engineering undergraduates Lydia Berneche and Matthew Alford. Under Chen’s guidance, the two students made an assessment of the impact of Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge on infrastructure in Bayou La Batre, Ala.

“The College of Engineering is very proud of Dr. Chen’s accomplishments in storm surge modeling, and we know that he richly deserves the honor associated with this NSF CAREER Award,” said Dr. John Steadman, dean of the College of Engineering at USA.

“This highly prestigious award brings with it national recognition for Dr. Chen, which in turn benefits the college and the University. The research he is doing with his colleagues and students at USA will be a real benefit to the people who live in coastal regions as well as contributing to our knowledge of how hurricane winds generate storm surge and waves.”

Chen and his research team will share their results through a community outreach effort that will better inform coastal residents, emergency responders, civil engineers, city planners and other decision-makers. The outreach aims to improve the development of coastal communities, strengthen the design of coastal structures, and better protect coastal residents against hurricanes.

“One of the lessons learned from Hurricane Katrina is the pressing need for coastal engineering research and education along the Gulf Coast,” said Chen, assistant professor of civil engineering and principal investigator for the NSF-funded initiative at USA. “The absence of these programs in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama has limited access to coastal engineering knowledge and expertise within these three states.

“Meeting research and education needs in coastal engineering along the Gulf Coast is essential to the recovery and rebuilding of this region, which has been devastated by recent hurricanes.”

Chen said that without adequate coastal engineering research and education, damage caused by hurricanes and other storms will continue to compound because of population trends in coastal areas. According to the National Research Council, more than 50 percent of the U.S. population lives within 50 miles of the shoreline. This number is expected to increase to 60 percent by the end of the decade.

“Besides environmental issues, the continuing popularity of coastal areas and increased development along the coastlines put more people and property at risk from coastal hazards,” Chen explained.

The wave and storm surge prediction research at USA includes developing flood maps for coastlines nationwide and using state-of-the-art computer simulation to determine wave forces on coastal bridges and evaluating their vulnerability. According to the Florida Department of Transportation, the cost of rebuilding coastal bridges damaged by hurricanes Katrina and Ivan will well exceed $1 billion.

Chen said the expertise of USA’s coastal engineers will be particularly valuable to transportation engineers, most of whom have not been trained to design roadways and bridges in coastal environments.

Chen and his research team at USA are also the first to update flood maps for the Alabama coastline and assess the impact of Hurricane Katrina’s storm surge on infrastructure in the state’s vulnerable Bayou La Batre and Dauphin Island communities. Civil engineering undergraduates at USA led the preliminary assessment of Bayou La Batre, working under the guidance of Chen to develop new flood maps for the area.

As part of its education and community outreach efforts, USA’s College of Engineering has dedicated itself to preparing the next generation of coastal engineers who can lend their professional expertise to the hurricane-prone Gulf Coast. Chen and other coastal engineering faculty in USA’s civil engineering department will work to create educational programs for students from K-12 to graduate school.

The K-12 programs will focus on attracting students to ocean science and coastal engineering, while USA’s civil engineering program works to meet the immediate need for coastal engineering professionals in the Gulf Coast region.

USA is the only university in the state to offer an undergraduate degree program in civil engineering with an emphasis in the coastal environment, and it’s currently working to establish one of the region’s only graduate programs in this highly specialized field. The educational component of Chen’s work will help support the proposed graduate program.

“Although there are a few coastal science programs in this region, no university in the three states devastated by Hurricane Katrina has a graduate program focused on civil engineering in the coastal environment,” Chen said. “The inadequate coastal engineering research and education in the Gulf Coast region are reflected in the failures of civil engineering infrastructure and buildings seen in Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath.”

Chen is also developing outreach curriculum for the general public, middle and high school math and science teachers, and practicing civil engineers.

Chen’s previous accomplishments and his novel, comprehensive plan for coastal engineering research and education earned him the NSF CAREER award. He is also one of four experts selected nationwide to make a presentation this month to the National Institute of Standards and Technology on prediction of waves and surges.

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