Emergency management faculty member uses NSF RAPID grant to investigate flash flood response strategies in India

Sudha Arlikatti
Sudha Arlikatti, associate professor of emergency management. Photo courtesy Sudha Arlikatti.
Sitapur flood survivors
Dr. Arlikatti with two female flood survivors in Sitapur village after an interview. Photo courtesy Sudha Arlikatti.
Kalimath village
Houses washed away from torrential rains and landslides in Kalimath village. Those left standing are condemned and uninhabitable, forcing residents to occupy makeshift tent cities or public shelters. Photo courtesy Sudha Arlikatti.
Chandrapuri bridge collapsed
Collapsed bridges from the flash floods force villagers to cross the raging waters in makeshift pulleys. See here, two research team members crossing to reach Chandrapuri villagers. Photo courtesy Sudha Arlikatti.
Chandrapuri survivor interviews
Research team conducting face-to-face interviews with disaster survivors from Chandrapuri village in a makeshift lunch room in an elementary school. Photo courtesy Sudha Arlikatti.
Alaknanda river flash flood aftermath
A home along the Alaknanda river stays submerged in silt from the flash flood. Residents ponder on the next steps to take as they await decisions from the government on compensation and relocation. Photo courtesy Sudha Arlikatti.
Monday, January 27, 2014 - 11:47

The flood waters rose quickly and silently swept through the mountain towns of Uttarakhand, North India in June 2013, taking the lives of an estimated 5,700 villagers, religious pilgrims and tourists who had no time to prepare or escape. Located in the foothills of the Himalayas, Uttarakhand is a destination each summer for thousands of devotees to worship in its temples. The government of India has said the actual number of people "missing and presumed dead" might never be confirmed, as bodies remain buried under landslides and in rivers swollen from heavy monsoon rainfall that measured more than 400 percent of the state's monthly precipitation.

Sudha Arlikatti, associate professor of emergency management. Photo courtesy Sudha Arlikatti.

Flash floods are considered to be one of the most dangerous weather-related threats in the world, claiming approximately 20,000 lives every year in underdeveloped as well as developed nations, said Sudha Arlikatti, University of North Texas associate professor of public administration with expertise in emergency management; yet there is no technology available that provides adequate forewarning, and virtually no studies on flash flood response within developing countries such as India.

Funded by a National Science Foundation Rapid Response Research (NSF RAPID) grant award, Arlikatti recently returned from India, where she spent weeks conducting field research to assess flood disaster preparedness and response strategies that affect survival.  Working with Dr. Neera Agnimitra from the Delhi School of Social Work and five graduate students, the team interviewed more than 300 survivors and village leaders and reviewed media and scholarly reports to learn about people's experiences and the social contexts, traditional knowledge, risk perceptions and information sources that guided response before, during and immediately after the floods that fateful summer day.

"These communities are grief stricken from the loss of loved ones and from their daily struggle to survive," said Arlikatti. "When the rains came, no one knew what to do or where to go for protection. And in the aftermath there are little to no resources to help these communities recover and rebuild their lives. So many of the widows are young women under 20 with two and three children who depended on their husbands but now must learn new skills to provide for their families."

Collapsed bridges from the flash floods force villagers to cross the raging waters in makeshift pulleys. See here, two research team members crossing to reach Chandrapuri villagers. Photo courtesy Sudha Arlikatti.

The RAPID grants are given to project proposals that have "a severe urgency with regard to availability of, or access to data, facilities or specialized equipment, including quick-response research on natural or anthropogenic disasters and similar unanticipated events." Arlikatti anticipates that knowledge learned from the grant will help create effective risk communication strategies such as evacuation decision, evacuation destination, and shelter location for vulnerable regions throughout Uttarakhand, and will provide a basis for comparing flash flood responses in India with rapid-onset hazards in other parts of the world, including mudflows, earthquakes and tsunamis. Findings will be integrated in course materials to teach and train students and emergency management planners and help them understand the challenges in conducting field research in international settings.

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The College of Public Affairs and Community Service blends academic programs, applied research and collaborative external partnerships to provide innovative education and strengthen metropolitan communities. The college offers programs that were established as the first of their kind -- including emergency administration and an academic certificate in volunteer and community resource management. Two programs, rehabilitation counseling and city management and urban policy, are ranked by U.S. News & World Report in the Top 20 nationally (13th and 8th respectively) and both are first in Texas. The college also offers the first accredited master's program in applied behavior analysis in the world and the first online anthropology master's program in the nation. Other academic programs include alternative dispute resolution, applied gerontology, criminal justice, disability and addiction rehabilitation, public administration, social work, and speech and hearing sciences.

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