Two students in reflective vests stand on a car bridge next to a metal rod holding a sensor pointed at the water below.

Video: Creating Equity in Midwestern Flood Response and Recovery

A collaboration between engineers and experts from the U-M Center for Social Solutions to address inequity in flood recovery.

Flooding is the leading cause of property damage and deaths in the U.S. It’s bigger than earthquakes and forest fires put together. Branko Kerkez, an Arthur F. Thurnau Associate Professor of civil and environmental engineering, and his students at the Digital Water Lab partnered with researchers at the University of Michigan Center for Social Solutions to measure, better understand and prevent flooding and its aftermath in some of the most vulnerable communities.

Branko Kerkez: Most people might not know, but flooding is the leading cause of property damage and deaths in the United States. It’s actually bigger than earthquakes and forest fires put together.

Narrator: American businesses are expected to lose 50 billion dollars in output in 2022 alone due to flooding. Engineering Professor Branko Kerkez and his students partnered with researchers at the Center for Social Solutions to measure and better understand flooding in most vulnerable communities.

Branko Kerkez: What we can see more broadly, not just locally, but across the U.S is that some communities can bounce back from floods fairly quickly. It’s primarily affluent communities. And some communities have a really hard time coming back from these kind of events.

Victoria Gray: I didn’t know the water was rising until the fire department came to in a boat to rescue me out of my trailer. Water was up to my door, and they tried to get my cats into a trash can so I’d take them out too.

Branko Kerkez: The idea that, you know, there’s inequity in flooding is a large motivator for the kind of work that we do.

When looking at the larger state of flooding in the United States, there’s just a lack of cohesive data that gives you the big picture. So, you need to know where people live, you know, what the various demographics are, what various income levels are in order to understand how flooding impacts people. And then at the same time, you need data to understand where flooding is.

Narrator: Branko Kerkez’s students install water sensors and collect river and stream data across the Southeast Michigan and beyond.

Branko Kerkez: Our lab focuses on building technologies for water. In this particular case, what we’re doing is we’re building sensing technologies that can be readily deployed throughout watersheds and cities. These are basically cost effective devices that measure water level. And you put these throughout a watershed and all of a sudden you get a big situational awareness of not just what happened but what’s happening in real time.

Narrator: Researchers from the Center for Social Solutions take that data and analyze them against the maps of socioeconomic inequalities in the region.

Julie Arbit: The partnership with Branko’s team emphasizes the connection between the data and the humans.

We’re looking at response and recovery phases of disasters, so who is flooded at this moment? What resources do they need? And how much damage are they going to incur? Next, we’re looking at a ton of different variables and exploring a lot of different data sets to make it really bulky, really high resolution and get to those neighborhood characteristics on a very small scale. But also make sure it’s very scalable, so that this methodology could be applied in other regions.

Branko Kerkez: Rather than just us as engineers focusing on flooding and saying, hey we have interesting solutions, we can actually can work with somebody who understands how the community functions, what their priorities are so that the solutions that we build actually make sense.

Julie Arbit: When you are able to evaluate on a very small scale, so a neighborhood scale, how vulnerable or how resilient households are, you can make sure that equity is built into those policies, not just equality.