Understanding Natural and Human Initiation and Transmission of Cascading Hazards (UNHITCH) (Spring 2019)


This fall, Hurricane Florence caused $38 billion in damages and 53 fatalities and highlighted the risk of cascading disasters in North Carolina. Cascading disasters are a chain of events in which a primary disruption triggers a sequence of secondary and then tertiary disruptions. Recent examples include the fires and explosions at the Arkema Chemical Plant in Southern Texas after Hurricane Harvey, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster following a magnitude 9.1 earthquake in Japan and the energy system failures in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. When stakeholders fail to account for the interconnectedness of systems, natural disasters may amplify into devastating and widespread social and technical disasters.

Project Description

This project team will study the cascading disasters that occurred in North Carolina as a result of Hurricane Florence, with a focus on widespread power outages, coal ash spills and hog-waste lagoon overflows.

The team will use these three examples (as well as others) to:

  1. Evaluate the nature and extent of the cascading disasters following Hurricane Florence with a focus on socio-economic factors, environmental justice concerns and environmental impacts.
  2. Identify methods for anticipating and mitigating future cascades using event trees, causal networks and other structured risk assessment tools.
  3. Propose policies and regulations that can be used to avoid cascading effects and assess the costs and benefits of such tools.

To achieve these objectives, the team will perform news analysis and stakeholder interviews to understand the chain of events following Hurricane Florence and generate maps using remote sensing data and GIS to identify relations between system failures and environmental and socio-demographic patterns. The team will create conceptual models of the cascading disasters using event trees and causal networks that can inform models to identify potential warning signs, points of intervention and other opportunities to interrupt the observed chains of events. The team will also review legislation, policy, regulations and previous community efforts related to cascading failures to develop revised policies and economic tools that could prevent or mitigate future cascades.

Anticipated Outputs

Detailed description and timeline of events, decisions and actions related to Hurricane Florence cascades; GIS-informed maps that provide insight into environmental justice, economic and ecological concerns; manuscript on cascading failures for publication; policy briefing on cascading effect mitigation in North Carolina


Spring 2019

  • Spring 2019: Begin collecting, analyzing and interpreting data; develop preliminary models; conduct literature and news review; begin reviewing existing policy and regulations; plan and conduct stakeholder interviews; generate GIS maps; propose new regulatory and economic incentives; prepare policy briefing

This Team in the News

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Waves crash at Atlantic Beach, NC, during Hurricane Florence.

Team Leaders

  • Elizabeth Albright, Nicholas School of the Environment
  • Mark Borsuk, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering
  • Luana Lima, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy

/graduate Team Members

  • Celine Robinson, Civil & Environmental Engg-PHD
  • Cai May Tan, Master of Environmental Management, Environmental Economics/Policy
  • Connor Valaik, Master of Environmental Management, Energy and Environment
  • Stella Wang, Environmental Sciences (BS)

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Elizabeth Allen, Environmental Sci/Policy (AB)
  • Yiwen Jiang, Environmental Sci/Policy (AB)
  • Daniel Kim
  • Jeremy Liang, Economics (BS)
  • Cydney Livingston
  • Niyaz Nurbhasha, Economics (BS)
  • Nishanth Singaraju
  • Jamiee Williams, Civil Engineering (BSE)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Lori Bennear, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy
  • Kyle Bradbury, Energy Initiative
  • Christine Ogilvie Hendren, Pratt School of Engineering-Civil & Environmental Engineering
  • Dalia Patino Echeverri, Nicholas School of the Environment-Environmental Sciences and Policy

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Duke Energy
  • North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality
  • North Carolina General Assembly
  • Scholars Strategy Network
  • Duke Data & Visualization Services