Here is the hypothetical scenario: A major hurricane is barreling toward Boston, bringing floodwaters and destructive winds that threaten Logan International Airport. Is this vital New England transportation hub adequately prepared to deal with the immediate and prolonged effects of this natural disaster?
A group of 27 Northeastern graduate students looked to answer that question with a semester-long project investigating Logan’s infrastructure resilience. In February, the students presented their findings to officials at Massport, the public authority that owns Massachusetts’ three airports and the marine terminal in the Port of Boston. Jalal Mapar, director of the Resilient Systems Division at the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate, also attended the meeting and met with the students following their presentations to provide some feedback and discuss his work.
The students’ innovative proposals included commissioning tourism duck boats to be used as amphibian vehicles for key personnel to get to Logan facilities inundated by a hurricane storm surge. The students also highlighted how new adaptations of network science and probabilistic risk assessment models could help Logan officials to better identify infrastructure vulnerabilities.
The graduate students researched and developed these projects in the fall as part of a new interdisciplinary course called “Critical Infrastructure Resilience,” which was co-taught by Stephen Flynn, a professor of political science and the founding co-director of Northeastern’s George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security, and Auroop Ganguly, an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, who directs the Sustainability and Data Sciences Laboratory at Northeastern. They were aided by teaching assistants Devashish Kumar and Evan Kodra, who are current and former doctoral students in Ganguly’s lab, respectively.
Flynn helped facilitate the partnership and has also fostered extensive relationships among the owners and operators of major infrastructure such as Massport, where he serves as a member of its Security Advisory Council.
Flynn and Ganguly credited the students for their hard work and for producing innovative ideas to address resilience. “Our students, Massport, and Professor Ganguly and I all came away from this class learning something new,” Flynn said.
“Massport recently looked at the resilience of its critical facilities at an asset-level and our students took a more system-level approach,” Ganguly added. “The idea is not necessarily if a specific bridge will collapse in the event of a major hurricane, but instead how to assure the maintenance of critical functionality such as mobility and communications and whether a quick recovery is possible.”
The students considered five resilience factors: cascading interdependencies across multiple infrastructure sectors; anticipatory engineering design; metrics and financial incentive structures; governance across jurisdictional or organizational barriers; and novel capabilities and applications. Engineering and public policy students worked together in groups and were assigned one of five lifelines: fuel, water, electricity, communications, or transportation.
Three of the groups—transportation, electricity, and a moderator group—presented to Massport senior managers in December, when the course was winding down. Those students did such an impressive job that the officials asked to see all the students’ projects.
“What we were hoping to present was a bigger picture scenario,” said Charles Simpson, SSH’14/MS’16, who was part of the fuel group. “We went beyond just Massport and were able to look at the providers of the fuel sources and what vulnerabilities they may have.”
Students in the College of Engineering and the College of Social Sciences and Humanities were enrolled in the course. Simpson noted the importance of taking an interdisciplinary approach to examining resilience by bringing together the perspectives of both engineering and public policy students. “Public policy students would focus more on the ‘why’ of an idea, while engineering students would focus on fixing a specific problem,” he explained.
While the course materials were all available online, the class discussions were animated by role-playing negotiations, or war games, motivated by Ganguly’s Dialogue of Civilizations program on climate change and its impacts on infrastructures and policy. Presentations by Massport officials and their contractor Kleinfelder helped infuse realism into the negotiations.
The students’ projects also build on the Kostas Institute’s mission to expand the capacity of communities, critical systems, and infrastructure to withstand, respond to, and recover from manmade and natural catastrophes. Security is a pillar of Northeastern’s use-inspired research model, along with health and sustainability.