A research project starting this fall will turn the Maryland campus into a real-life laboratory to explore getting critical infrastructure up and running quickly in the wake of hurricanes, earthquakes or other disasters.

Experts from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, the Earth Science Systems Center (ESSIC) and the Cooperative Institute for Climate and Satellites-Maryland will conduct the three-year, $750,000 study funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). For insight into actual infrastructure systems, they’ll partner with Facilities Management and the Division of Information Technology.

The study, part of a larger NSF program to safeguard the nation’s critical infrastructure, will focus on how operators navigate increasingly intertwined electrical, water, telecommunications and other systems after they’ve been knocked out of service. From Puerto Rico’s nearly year-long struggle to recover after deadly Hurricane Maria to more modest utility disruptions after Washington, D.C.,-area storms, solving the puzzle is getting more and more complex.

“Imagine you are a power plant operator after a disaster,” said Allison Reilly, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering and affiliate of the Center for Disaster Resilience who's leading the research project. “You may be hesitant to take certain restoration steps until you know the IT system is working, while at the same time an IT operator is waiting for a sign that recovery efforts have begun at the power plant.”

Luckily, UMD’s infrastructure doesn’t need to suffer any damage of its own to provide a learning environment for the researchers. They’ll use simulation and gaming techniques, computer modeling and interviews and observation to understand operator behavior, said Mike Gerst, an assistant research professor with ESSIC.

The study will address crucial needs, said Jeff Hollingsworth, UMD vice president and chief information officer.

"Disaster recovery has always been a critical part of information technology, and with increasing natural disasters and cybersecurity threats, it has become even more important," he said.

After working with on-campus utility providers, the study will expand to include other partners, including Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island, S.C., the researchers said.

The high-pressure choices in crisis situations that they’ll be studying are “the linchpin” to disaster recovery, said ESSIC associate research professor Melissa Kenney. “By understanding what drives operator decisions, we can explore approaches and develop recommendations to reduce infrastructure failure times.”

This article has been updated to more fully reflect assistant Professor Allison Reilly's role.