Hurricane Katrina Forest Recovery

As we work together to tackle the historic challenge that Hurricane Katrina has presented to the forestry communities of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama, we hope that this blog will be a valuable resource and tool.

Tuesday, January 10

Researchers Figure Out How To Rebuild Stronger

While Katrina managed to take away and destroy most things in her path, one thing she left in abundance was damaged and downed trees.“Obviously, there is a real need for reconstruction at this time,” said Dr. Robert Lochhead, director of the School of Polymers and High Performance Materials at The University of Southern Mississippi. “The challenge is utilize the downed trees and all that wood to build the Coast back stronger than ever.”

That’s just one of the challenges facing researchers at the school. “Hurricane Katrina, like many other natural disasters, was a great leveler. Everyone is forced to pretty much roll up their sleeves and pitch in to help where they can,” said Lochhead. “In our department, we have our hands full. We’re still in the early stages of recovery, and we’re working hard on developing solutions. The difficult thing is that it’s hard to figure out where to start.”

One of the main concerns Lochhead has is where the scientific workforce all along the Coast might be. “Roughly 25 to 30 percent of all plastics used in the United States are made in that corridor. This is a field that requires training, and those were all well-trained, experienced people,” he said. Lochhead added that Southern Miss is working with the Council for Chemical Research, Lamar University and Louisiana State University to identify available facilities where displaced workers can resume their research.

Already, the ideas are flowing, and there’s no doubt that some very innovative materials and methods will eventually become the norm in the construction industry. “One thing to do is to look at places such as Bermuda. It’s an island, so people there have nowhere to go when a hurricane hits. The homes there have to be strong,” said Lochhead. “The building materials they use have been around for a long time. They use concrete blocks in which they run steel rods for reinforcement. Then they fill the entire thing up with cement to basically form a bunker. We should be looking at that old method of construction to see how we can adapt it to our situation here.” So, what to do with all that wood left behind by Katrina?

“The president of the university, Dr. Shelby Thames, has developed a new technique in which wood can be made into chipboard. Currently, the problem with pressed wood is that formaldehyde is used in making the product, and formaldehyde is a suspect carcinogen,” Lochhead said. He added that Thames is working on developing a way to treat the wood, press it and extrude it into forms, such as window and door frames. “That would be an ecologically sound way to use downed trees from the hurricane to create strong, affordable building materials,” he said. One of the main issues following the hurricane and the resulting tidal surges was the effect the water had on homes. According to Lochhead, “weeks after the storm, you can rip out the sheetrock in a home and the insulation is still soaking wet.” With current construction materials, if they become wet or covered in mud, it is necessary to rip the home apart in order to dry it out. Lochhead said the homes we build now are “hydrophilic,” or water loving. “We are working to develop building materials that are waterproof and mud proof so that the insulation won’t get wet. And we’re looking at ways to manufacture the materials so that they will be affordable so that we can build homes that are hydrophobic, or water-hating,” said Lochhead.

Another idea in development is the addition of antibiotic and antifungal agents into the building materials. “One of the hardest things to deal with after the water recedes is the mold and bacteria,” he said. “If there were agents in the building materials to kill the bacteria and mold spores, the problem would no longer exist.”

The problem of contaminants reaches beyond the walls of homes and buildings, and pollution is a major concern following a disaster. “We are working with the Corps of Engineers to design systems to quickly sample mud and water,” said Lochhead. “That is something that really needs to be done in the field. There just isn’t time to send samples away to a lab to be analyzed.” Lochhead said microbiologists at Southern Miss have developed a method to analyze the DNA of bacteria to determine if it is human or animal. “If certain pathogenic bacteria are found, people can be warned and told to stay away. That can greatly mitigate health hazards after a disaster,” he said.

Toxins such as gas, diesel and heavy metals can contaminate soil and water following a disaster. “We are developing materials and methods to remediate that problem with water soluble polymers and membrane systems used to remove toxins from the soil and water. In the past, those toxins would stay in the environment for decades. Now, we can have a clean environment soon after a disaster strikes.

One of our professors, Dr. Charles McCormick, has developed several polymers for that application,” said Lochhead.Developing new products to be used in the hurricane recovery efforts is just the beginning, according to Lochhead. “As soon as the technologies are developed, workforce training must occur so that the innovations can be implemented into the marketplace,” he said. Lochhead added that the Southern Miss Department of Economic and Workforce Development is an essential part of the process.

Dr. Cyndi Gaudet is the director of the Jack and Patti Phillips Workplace Learning and Performance Institute (WLPI), located on the Southern Miss campuses in Hattiesburg and on the Gulf Coast. Gaudet's professional efforts include developing and maintaining a competent workforce, determining the most appropriate academic preparation for training professionals (pre-service and in-service) and the impact of technology on learning and performance in the workplace.

The WLPI is recognized for developing innovative programs and tools that link performance requirements to industry needs. The Southern Miss WLPI will play a key role in helping organizations rebuild and retool their post-Katrina workforce. “By partnering with state, local and federal stakeholders, the WLPI will work with individual organizations to integrate twenty-first century workforce models for the hurricane-impacted areas,” said Gaudet. “The WLPI offers certificate, master's and Ph.D. programs that provide the leadership needed to develop the human capital required for Coast rebuilding and renewal.”

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