Laura J . Steinberg
civil and environmental
engineering scholar on
combined natural and
even before she experienced
one of the most devastating
of modern times.
changed her outlook in
many ways, though not in
ways one might expect.
It did not, for instance,
make her think of engineering
in more personal
terms. The SMU professor
of environmental and civil engineering always has
taken engineering personally. The goal of environmental and civil
engineering education, Steinberg says, is to create engineers who
think deeply about the way people live and who design projects
that benefit the communities in which they are built. “In doing
so, it is important for engineers to consider how people will interact
with these projects and to be sensitive to the local culture and
“I’m interested in the education of civil and environmental engineers
with a broad view of the world,” says the former Tulane
University faculty member who joined SMU in fall 2006. “Those
are the engineers who will be able to sit down with local leaders to
determine what development strategies a city should undertake.”
While acknowledging that specialization is important to some
extent, Steinberg believes that her broader view of engineering will
shape the future. “The field is catching up with where I am. In civil
engineering this viewpoint is becoming more prevalent and there
are more proponents of this view,” she says.
The Hurricane Katrina survivor is known as a leader in the
emerging field of NATECH disaster research. NATECH – an
acronym of “natural” and “technological” – studies the way the effects
of natural disasters can be magnified in urban areas when nature
and technology interact. The goal of NATECH research is to
engineer safeguards that lessen or avoid the problems in the future.
Steinberg’s international stature stems in part from her fieldwork
after the 7.4 magnitude earthquake that hit Turkey in 1999. The quake struck particularly hard in a heavily industrialized region
near Istanbul. Disruptions in water service, transportation
and emergency response contributed to a refinery fire that burned
unchecked for several days. It also caused the release of 200,000
kilograms (kg) of anhydrous ammonia gas to relieve pressure and
avoid an explosion in tanks at a fertilizer plant and the leakage of
6.5 million kg of toxic acrylonitrile, used in making plastics, from
ruptured chemical tanks into the air, soil and water.
A much-in-demand speaker and consultant, Steinberg holds
an undergraduate degree from the University of Pennsylvania and
Master’s and doctorate degrees from Duke University. In research
published in the Natural Hazards Review, and later borne out by
the Katrina disaster, she warned that hurricanes striking the
Louisiana coast could have massively detrimental effects on industrial
facilities, which could lead to environmental problems for
local communities. In fact, Katrina triggered the release of
1 million gallons of crude oil from a New Orleans oil refinery,
necessitating the abandonment of approximately 1,800 houses
and resulting in the settlement of a $330 million class-action law
suit against the responsible oil company.
Yet, Steinberg contends, studying disasters and experiencing
one are very different. She was a homeowner in an area of New Orleans’
Uptown that the locals call “the sliver on the river” when the
long-anticipated “big one” met a textbook example of how public
policy shortcomings and interdependence of infrastructure can
combine to exacerbate the effects of a natural calamity.
The experience provided many lessons
to everyone in the engineering field, but her most immediate lesson was
surprising. “It sensitized me to the fact
that just putting out scientific information
to the public and thinking you can
predict the response to that information
is wrong because people are much more
complex than that,” she says.
For 10 years Steinberg had warned her
friends to evacuate whenever a major
storm blew toward the bowl-shaped city,
bound on the north by Lake Pontchartrain
and on the south and west by the
Mississippi River and which sits 8 feet below sea level in some
As Hurricane Katrina headed for New Orleans, she says, “they
remembered my rant and left. I remembered my rant and still had
a hard time believing that the bowl that is New Orleans would fill.”
Steinberg recalls that she “didn’t completely commit to the effort,”
taking only two days’ change of clothes and leaving her cat behind
as she boarded a Southwest Airlines flight to Philadelphia.
“The upshot is that the imagined unimaginable came true,” she
says. Although her house stayed dry, she was unable to return to it
for five weeks because some areas of the city remained under 10
feet of water and had to be drained with massive pumps. Then the
mayor had to make sure the water and sewer facilities worked and that
police and fire personnel were sufficient to ensure health and
safety. The city remained under a mandatory evacuation order for
several weeks following Katrina. (Her cat survived by hunting, and
might have been hunted herself, judging by her new, intense fear of
dogs, Steinberg says.)
Her experience led to an ongoing meditation on the term
“resilience,” which is used in engineering, urban planning and public
policy with slightly different nuances. “I’ve become interested in
how one defines ‘resilience.’ I’m now able to think about it in a
larger sense. … I started out thinking about resilience as how to
what had been there previously, and now I recognize that
resilience is about how to get back to a highly functioning community,
even if that community has different needs, goals and characteristics
from before,” she says.
Steinberg is seeing that firsthand in New Orleans, where she
watches the public debate over whether whole sections of the city
should be rebuilt. She strongly feels the citizens of the community,
those who will interact with the new reality, should have a key role
in making those decisions.
Steinberg, who in March 2006 was invited to speak on New
Orleans and resilience at the National Academy of Sciences in
Washington, D.C., emphasizes that in addition to rebuilding the
the city must provide encouragement for a stronger
community response to future disasters.
“It is a temptation of disaster management planning to focus
too much on the role of command and control systems as well as
technological needs to manage disasters. It needs to be recognized
that citizen response to disasters will be a key element in
effective response and that flexibility in the response process
needs to be built into the response system,” says Steinberg, who
served as a U.S. Capitol page in high school and long has been
in government and public policy.
From an engineering standpoint, it is obvious that the I-wall
design for the hurricane protection system failed and will not be
used again. “Importantly, the basic failure mechanism of flooding
that occurred for the interior section of the city was water entering
the drainage canals from Lake Pontchartrain and the subsequent
failure of the I-walls,” she says.
To remedy that problem, in addition to repairing the breeches
in the levees and floodwalls, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
undertook a massive, fast-tracked project to construct temporary
floodgates from Lake Pontchartrain to the canal system. When
there is no hurricane threat, the gates will stay open so the canals
will act as conduits for normal precipitation runoff into the lake.
The gates will be closed during hurricanes to prevent the water
from Lake Pontchartrain from entering the canals in an effort to
protect them from being breached or overtopped, she says.
Although it is unclear whether global warming had anything
to do with the severity of the hurricane, there’s no doubt that the
destruction of wetlands east and south of New Orleans contributed
to the flooding problem, she says.
The hurricane combined with something personal to bring
Steinberg to SMU. About three days after
the Katrina hit, when everything was
chaotic, Steinberg was staying at her sister’s
home in New Jersey when she received a
text message on her cell phone from SMU
Assistant Professor of Environmental and
Civil Engineering Alfredo J. Armendariz.
He wrote: “Hi, Laura, are you okay? We’re
thinking of you at SMU. From, Al.”
“It was one of the kindest gestures I
received,” she recalls.
A few weeks later, Professor and Department
Chair Bijan Mohraz invited her
to spend the semester at SMU. However,
she already had accepted dual appointments
in Washington, D.C. The first was
as a fellow at the Department of Homeland
Security (DHS) where she worked on
the nation’s Critical Infrastructure Protection
research and development plan, as
well as on risk assessment planning and
modeling strategy development for disasters.
She also provided background information
and perspective for the
department’s post-Katrina efforts to improve the emergency response
and to reduce both the number of fatalities and the extent
of damage in the future.
In her second appointment, as a visiting scientist at George
Washington University’s Institute for Crisis, Disaster, and Risk
Management, she continued her ongoing research and participated
with the institute in briefings with the Dutch Ministry of Water
on Hurricane Katrina response issues, with the Mid-America
Earthquake Center on disaster response planning and with the
Army Corps of Engineers in a series of meetings on how to prepare
for the 2006 hurricane season based on lessons from Katrina.
Mohraz persisted, calling to ask if she would consider filling an
open slot for a permanent faculty position. During her interview
she was attracted by the quality of the faculty as well as their
“It’s hard to find that. I think Dr. Mohraz as the chair has
done a terrific job of promoting this culture,” says Steinberg, who
will take over as chair of the department at the end of the spring
semester. Moreover, that collegiality is fundamental to the
research Steinberg considers necessary to solving the
world’s most complex problems.
Steinberg was in France recently discussing a possible research
collaboration between SMU and L’institute national de l’ environnement
industriel et des risques (INERIS), the internationally
known French institute whose researchers study risks in the industrial
environment and work as consultants
to governments and industry to
manage those risks. In February she
spoke at a conference sponsored by the
European Commission on “Land Use
Plans in Risky Areas” in Milan, Italy.
Drawing upon her Katrina work, she
talked to social scientists and engineers
from throughout Europe about the risks
inherent in living and working in hurricane-prone areas.
“The addition of Laura Steinberg to the
faculty brings a needed dimension in disaster management
protection that I believe an environmental
and civil engineering department must
provide for 21st-century education and
research,” Mohraz says, adding that she
has the stature to effectively promote
strategic partnerships for the University
with government and industry.
Steinberg’s goals include the concrete,
such as adding one faculty member
a year for the next five years, and the
more abstract – educating environmental and civil engineers who
are competent communicators able to participate in public policy
From her sunny corner office she says she hopes recruitment
of faculty and students will be aided by the new J. Lindsay Embrey
Engineering Building – the first university building in the Southwest
to be registered for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental
Design) gold certification from the U.S. Green Building
Council based on stringent air and water quality and conservation
“I love all the light in the building,” she says, “the airiness,
and new lab facilities.” All those features plus the LEED
designation should help in recruitment, she adds.
“I’m looking forward to leading the department, both in terms
of faculty and graduate and undergraduate education.”