Come Hell or high water: student researcher seeks to make disaster relief accessible for everyone

Heidi Hurst
Heidi Hurst used her background in applied math and geospatial analysis to increase the effectiveness of Disaster Recovery Centers and identify the areas with the most need for these centers. Standing by Heidi is Kennedy Akwuba, who was Heidi’s teammate and an intern in the same DHS HS-STEM Summer Internship Program (Photo Courtesy of Andrew Kaiser, Federal Emergency Management Agency).

In 2013, Colorado experienced disaster-scale flooding that resulted in eight confirmed deaths and six missing people. As an applied math student at Harvard University, Heidi Hurst was forced to watch from across the country as crisis gripped her hometown of Greeley, Colo. “Heading for higher ground,” was the last message Hurst received from her father before her family evacuated their home. Watching her loved ones experience crisis firsthand inspired Hurst to begin researching disaster relief and emergency management.

Fortunately for the Hursts, the floodwaters left the property and the family intact. Still, this inspiration drove Hurst to take part in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) HS-STEM Summer Internship program. This program provides undergraduate and graduate students majoring in homeland security related science, technology, engineering and mathematics (HS-STEM) disciplines the opportunity to conduct research in a DHS area at federal research facilities across the U.S.

During her internship, Hurst conducted research for the Recovery Directorate of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at the headquarters in Washington, D.C. Her research focused on resources allocated to Disaster Recovery Centers (DRCs) and the placement of these relief sites. Hurst’s work was novel because it incorporated geospatial analysis to determine the most accessible sites to place DRCs in disaster situations.

“My research aims to improve survivor access to services by evaluating the location of Disaster Recovery Centers (DRCs). These pop-up shops are opened in the wake of a disaster to provide access to federal, local, and partner resources, ranging from information about Individual Assistance Grants to recommendations for crisis counseling. My research looks at how many impacted individuals are within a reasonable driving distance of these facilities. In addition, my project evaluates the social vulnerability of these individuals based on the Social Vulnerability Index published by the Center for Disease Control,” Hurst said of her time with FEMA.

Prior to working with FEMA, Hurst studied applied math with a focus on navigation and geospatial analysis, a rare concentration combination. Her unique skills enabled her to create a programming script that analyzed the vulnerability of various populations within a given travel time of a DRC site. Hurst hopes that eventually her research will lead to a tool that analytically allocates DRC locations. By doing so, these facilities will be able to provide better service for survivors at minimal taxpayer expense.

Not only did the HS-STEM program allow Hurst to work in a field she was passionate about, it also fostered a set of skills invaluable to geospatial analysis. Hurst gained coding experience working with ArcPy, data management, and REST feeds as well as skills unrelated to programming techniques. Hurst also attributes her increased ability to react with empathy and compassion in the face of disaster to the time she spent working with FEMA program managers who instructed her in how to deal with survivors.

When asked about her overall impression of the experience, Hurst said, “I learned a lot during my time at FEMA and had an incredible summer. My mentors and colleagues in the Recovery Directorate worked hard to make sure that I felt like a valued member of the team. I believe that my research will make a difference in the lives of survivors – and ultimately, that’s the best outcome I could hope for.”

The DHS HS-STEM Summer Internship Program is funded by DHS and administered through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.