Hurricane Irma: U-M experts can discuss power outages, infrastructure strength, public health threats

September 7, 2017
Nicole Casal Moore


University of Michigan experts are available to comment on Hurricane Irma: power outage forecasts, the strength of infrastructure in the face of increasingly extreme weather, the process of hurricane intensification, the evacuation processes and public health threats from flooding.

Sue Anne Bell, clinical associate professor at the U-M School of Nursing, focuses on disaster preparedness and response. Her research addresses health effects of disasters and the impact of climate change on human health. She’s particularly interested in the relationship between community resilience, health disparities and disasters.

“Many often question if mandatory evacuations are really necessary, given the challenges of such a mass migration,” she said. “Here is a simple answer: It is. We need look no further than the past few weeks in Texas, with hundreds requiring dangerous rescues, which in some cases had fatal results. While meteorological forecasts have greatly improved, accurate prediction models are still just that: predictions. No one can say where Hurricane Irma will actually land, what strength it will be upon landfall and what type of havoc it will actually wreak.”

Bell is a member of a Disaster Medical Assistance Team and is a certified National Healthcare Disaster Professional, and active in emergency preparedness and response activities through the Department of Health and Human Services’ National Disaster Medical System, American Nurses Association and Emergency Nurses Association.


Seth Guikema, assistant professor of industrial and operations engineering and civil and environmental engineering, and colleagues have generated a power outage forecast that they will update regularly. He can discuss Hurricane Irma’s potential impacts on the power grid and infrastructure. Guikema uses big-data analytics to predict the hurricane’s effects and enable power companies, first responders and others to deploy resources more efficiently.

“As the storm progresses, we will be updating our power outage model, which is publicly available,” he said. “Our model provides information for utilities planning for the restoration and also for citizens, government agencies, and other private and public entities to help them make more informed decisions about how to prepare for and respond to this storm.”

Contact: 734-369-2469,

Richard Rood, professor of climate and space sciences and engineering, can discuss connections between hurricanes and climate change. He is also a member of the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments program, a federally funded effort to study climate change adaptation and climate variability in the Great Lakes region.

“Harvey and, now, Irma bring attention to very strong tropical storms and the impacts that a warming ocean has on storm strength and extreme precipitation,” Rood said. “Looking at the disruption and destruction associated with these storms provide insights into the integrated effects of increasingly severe weather and sea level rise. They point out the need to increase resilience of the built environment. They also point to the value of predictive models to contribute to improved environmental security.”

Contact: 301-526-8572 (cell),

Sherif El-Tawil is a professor of civil and environmental engineering who studies natural hazards engineering and community resilience. He can discuss those topics, as well as the extent to which infrastructure can withstand the stronger storms that climate change is expected to bring.

“Our physical infrastructure is built to specifications known as design codes. Design codes are based on hazard level, or risk, which is calibrated to historical events,” he said. “Therefore, it is fair to say that climate change is challenging our long established risk models, especially for wind-based disasters. In other words, what we now think of as a 1-in-500 year event may no longer be such a low probability incident as storms intensify as a result of climate change. Since it is not yet clear how climate change affects storm intensity, it is hard to predict how the hazard level will grow and make our communities more vulnerable. However, indications are that the risk is growing.

“One issue that most people do not fully appreciate is that disasters are compounded by interactions that occur during or after the initiating event. In Hurricane Harvey, for example, the storm surge created fast-moving debris, which downed live power lines. The downed lines were hidden under standing water leading to electrocution hazards.”

El-Tawil is involved in research investigating how such interactions occur and propagate during disasters, and in developing simulation tools that can be used by policymakers to better prepare for extreme events.


Chris Ruf, professor of climate and space sciences and engineering, and colleagues have been monitoring Irma’s intensification in the CYGNSS Science Operations Center on U-M’s campus. NASA’s CYGNSS, or Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System, is a constellation of eight microsatellite observatories that track storm intensification in unprecedented detail. Today, this process is not well understood and storms are expected to increase in intensity due to climate change. CYGNSS tracks wind speed data at tropical hurricane latitudes across the globe, taking 32 measurements per second. It launched in December and Irma is the second storm it has probed. Read more about CYGNSS.

“The CYGNSS Science Operations Center has been very busy all week determining when the satellites will be over Irma and constructing commands that were uplinked to the satellites to activate high resolution science modes during those overpasses,” Ruf said. “We will be monitoring the successful activation of those commands over the rest of the week, up to landfall and beyond. This is the same procedure that was followed with Harvey leading up to and after its landfall in Texas. The measurements will be used to improve our understanding of the underlying physical processes that drive the storms. This will ultimately lead to improvements in our ability to forecast them.”

Contact: 734-904-2523 (text to set up a call),

Joseph Eisenberg, professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health, is an expert on infectious disease epidemiology and has 20 years of experience in microbial risk assessment work focused on water quality. He is part of a group of scientists from around the country involved with the Modeling Infectious Disease Agents Study, an NIH-funded program that focuses on infectious disease transmission modeling with a particular focus on waterborne pathogens.

“Floods have been shown to increase the risk of exposure to pathogens in the U.S. and elsewhere,” he said. “People should be extra careful under flood conditions and treat their water, as there is likely to be an increase in contamination events.”

Contact: 734-764-5435,

Aubree Gordon, assistant professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health, works on infectious disease epidemiology and global health, particularly the epidemiologic features and transmission of influenza and dengue fever. Her research also includes study of the Zika virus, including working on the Nicaraguan site of the NIH funded Zika in Pregnancy study.

Contact: 734-763-3580,

Marisa Eisenberg, assistant professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health, is an expert in modeling infectious diseases, particularly cholera and waterborne disease in Haiti, Thailand, and Angola. She has also studied other infectious diseases, such as dengue, chikungunya and Ebola. She also is one of the scientists involved with the NIH-funded Modeling Infectious Disease Agents Study that focuses on infectious disease transmission modeling.

Contact: 734-763-2991,