The cascading impacts of disasters : understanding how disaster-induced population changes impact water infrastructure systems and the built environment




Spearing, Lauryn Altena

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When engineers design and manage infrastructure systems, they make assumptions about the operating context in which these systems exist (e.g., expected population changes). These assumptions are often challenged during population shifts, such as those caused by disasters. For instance, natural disasters displace people to hosting communities, suddenly shocking these communities as they provide services to both the existing and new populations. Protracted crises can also cause population shifts; for instance, the social distancing policies (SDPs) enacted to prevent the spread of COVID-19 changed when and where people use their infrastructure systems. During such events, infrastructure managers are often challenged to continue the provision of reliable services. There is limited literature that documents how infrastructure is managed during disaster-induced population changes. Without documenting what happened during actual events and capturing lessons learned, institutional knowledge and practical information may be lost. As such, I assess how disaster-induced population dynamics impact infrastructure systems using empirical data from two disaster scenarios. First, I used the context of the 2018 California Camp Fire, a large wildfire that displaced more than 50,000 people. I examined the challenges hosting communities faced as they provided infrastructure services and documented the efforts to accommodate displaced persons. Next, I studied the intersection between social and sheltering systems by exploring temporal demand at shelters, peoples’ perceptions towards shelters, and why people chose to stay at a tent city in a parking lot. The second disaster scenario is the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting SDPs that led to spatial and temporal shifts in demand. Specifically, I studied the challenges and system changes experienced by utilities and documented utilities’ responses. On a more granular scale, this dissertation also assessed changes in water and electricity demand in buildings on the University of Texas campus during SDPs. This dissertation provides practical and policy recommendations that can be used by communities to proactively prepare for and respond to disaster-induced displacements. For instance, results show that pre-existing challenges were made worse by both disaster displacement and SDPs, indicating that cities should periodically assess their systems to prepare for potential population shifts.


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