Engineering students assess hurricane damage

By Alyssa Etier

Alexis Kwasinski and Wayne Weaver traveled to the areas affected by Hurricane Katrina Oct. 16 through 23 in order to assess the damages. The University graduate students of the College of Engineering looked at power infrastructures, concentrating on communication.

“First, we have to find out what happened, to assess what happened,” Weaver said. “Hopefully, from that information someone will be able to make improvements in the future.”

Kwasinski and Weaver held a seminar to discuss their research Monday at Everitt Laboratory, 1406 W. Green St., in Urbana, which was telecast to six other universities. They will finish the report on their findings by July so that it is completed before the next hurricane season.

In September, Philip Krein, professor of electrical and computer engineering and head of the Grainger Center for Electric Machinery and Electromechanics, applied for a grant from the National Science Foundation, and it was approved Sept. 9.

“It’s the government’s response to say how we can be more prepared for another hurricane,” said Joyce Mast, research assistant for the Grainger Center.

At the peak of harm to electrical system infrastructures, 2.7 million people were affected. When Kwasinski and Weaver visited six weeks later, 125,000 people still did not have power.

“You need power to get the communication network to work,” Kwasinski said during the seminar. “The telephone network is complex, very interconnecting. Keeping this network working is very difficult, and one thing keeping it working is power supply.”

While visiting the affected areas, Kwasinski and Weaver focused on central offices, which act as a communication hub for a community.

“Not only in New Orleans, but in Mississippi, there were a large number of central offices that went out of service, even destroyed,” Kwasinski said.

Kwasinski and Weaver were surprised to find that the most serious damages occurred in central offices, which according to Kwasinski is unusual because they are enclosed. Some central offices lost service for three days, some for two weeks or longer, and others were completely destroyed.

“Katrina was strong enough to take out everything,” Weaver said.

During the seminar, Kwasinski and Weaver showed pictures of central offices that had been flooded – some to the rooftops – and had mud and debris on cable-racks and distribution panels.

They also discussed the difficulty of bringing portable generators and replacing batteries. They met one woman who drives all day to damaged areas to refuel generators.

The slide show also provided pictures of damage to roads, houses, businesses and other property. They noted messages to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the government or passers-by on doors and vehicles, such as “you loot, we shoot.”

While showing a picture of a destroyed yellow convertible, Weaver said, “That’s a comment we made to each other a lot, ‘wow, that car must have been nice, that was a nice house.'”

The National Science Foundation will use Kwasinski and Weaver’s research as well as information gathered from other perspectives.