Tweets sent during last year’s massive flooding on Colorado’s Front Range were able to detail the scope of damage to the area’s infrastructure, according to a study by the University of Colorado Boulder.
The findings can help geotechnical and structural engineers more effectively direct their reconnaissance efforts after future natural disasters—including earthquakes, tsunamis and tornadoes—as well as provide them data that might otherwise be lost due to rapid cleanup efforts.
“Because the flooding was widespread, it impacted many canyons and closed off access to communities for a long duration, making it difficult to get a reconnaissance team on the ground,” said Shideh Dashti, an assistant professor of civil, environmental and architectural engineering at CU-Boulder and an author of the paper. “The continued storms also prevented airborne reconnaissance. As a result, social media and other remote sources of information were used to obtain reconnaissance information.
“People were tweeting amazing pictures and videos of damage to bridges and other infrastructure systems,” Dashti said. “After the fact, we compared those tweets to the damage reported by engineering reconnaissance teams and they were well correlated.”
During the second week of September 2013, the Front Range was deluged with as much as 17 inches of rain, causing extensive flooding that destroyed roads, swept away houses and washed out bridges.
After a disaster like last year’s floods, it’s important for geotechnical and structural engineers to collect data about how well infrastructure withstood the extreme event, in order to prevent damage in future similar disasters. Structures are designed to survive a certain amount of stress, but those built-in safety margins are based on mathematical formulas that attempt to describe the real world. Detailed information about what actually happens on the ground during disasters allows engineers to tweak the mathematical formulas and build more resilient infrastructure in the future.