Louise K. Comfort

University of Pittsburgh
Graduate School of Public and International Affairs

Graduate School of Public and International Affairs
230 S. Bouquet Street
Pittsburgh, PA
comfort@gspia.pitt.edu |  Visit Personal Website

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My research focuses on the problem of linking information technology to organizational learning and performance in complex, dynamic environments. I am working in two areas: decision-making processes under uncertainty and organizational design to improve performance in complex systems. Three works in progress at the Center for Disaster Management (CDM) illustrate how these processes interact. These works are: A Sustainable Sociotechnical Approach for Detecting, Mitigating, and Building Resilience to Hazards. This research is an international, interdisciplinary project to implement an early tsunami detection system in the coastal waters of Padang, Sumatra, Indonesia. The research builds on earlier work in Indonesia that supported the design and development of a computational model for an undersea sensor network that links to a land-based communications network for detection and mitigation of near-field tsunami risk. The research is supported by National Science Foundation grant # OCE 1331463, Hazards SEES Type 2, 9/1/2013 – 8/31/2017. The Dynamics of Risk: Changing Technologies, Complex Systems, and Collective Action. This book manuscript is currently under review for the Complexity Series at Princeton University Press. It is a sequel to my 1999 book, Shared Risk: Complex Systems in Seismic Response, using different methods to analyze twelve earthquake response systems from 1999 to 2015. The book examines the impact of information technologies upon organizational capacity of communities to monitor changing conditions in regions exposed to seismic risk and to mobilize response actions when seismic events occur. Scalability and Sustainability in Uncertain Environments: Recovery from Nepal Earthquakes, April 25 and May 12, 2015. This study of disaster recovery is based on actual context of seismic risk in Nepal, and issues involved in incorporating mitigation of multi-hazard risk into disaster recovery.

Comfort, L.K., A. Okada, and G. Ertan. 2013. Networks of Action in Catastrophic Events: The 11 March 2011 Tohoku-Oki Disasters. Earthquake Spectra, Vol. 29, No. SI, pp. S387-S40
Abstract: The 11 March 2011 Tohoku-oki, Japan, earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor disasters shattered existing plans for decision making, preparedness, and response operations under conditions of uncertainty and risk. The interaction among these events created dynamics that could not be addressed by any single organization or jurisdiction alone and that had not been considered in the plan- ning processes undertaken by separate jurisdictions and organizations. The scale and scope of devastation overwhelmed those responsible for protecting commu- nities at every level of jurisdictional decision making and organizational manage- ment. We examine the policy problem of decision making involving interaction between human and natural systems, and review existing policies, plans, and practices that characterized efforts in disaster risk reduction in Japan prior to 11 March 2011. We contrast these plans with observed practices, focusing on interactions and communication flows among organizations engaged in respond- ing to the disaster. These events demonstrate the compelling need to rethink catastrophe. [DOI: 10.1193/1.4000109]
DOI: DOI: 10.1193/1.4000109
Comfort, Louise K., Thomas A. Birkland, Beverly A. Cigler, and Earthea Nance. 2010. "Retrospectives and Prospectives on Hurricane Katrina: Five Years and Counting." Public Administration Review 70 (5): 669-678.
Abstract: New Orleans recovery from the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 reflects a long, complex, contentious process that still is not complete. In this article, the authors explore the key factors that have supported and hindered recovery so far. Initial conditions within the city, the web of policy demands, as well as recent changes in law and procedures for the region are explored using a new model that may be applicable to other severe disasters. Any recovery, the authors conclude, must be anchored within a local context, but only with necessary administrative backing from the wider region and society. Recovery from disaster off ers a rare opportunity to rebuild damaged communities into more resilient ones when energy and investment are immediately channeled into the stricken region and focused in a constructive redesign that acknowledges environmental risk. Th e recovery process then shifts to mitigation and reduction of risk. Hence, cities will be better prepared for the next extreme event, which will surely come.
Comfort, Louise K., Arjen Boin, and Chris C. Demchak. 2010. Designing Resilience: Preparedness for Extreme Events. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.
Abstract: In the wake of severe climatic events and terrorist acts, and the emergence of dangerous technologies, communities, nations, and global organizations have diligently sought to create strategies to prepare for such events. Designing Resilience presents case studies of extreme events and analyzes the ability of affected individuals, institutions, governments, and technological systems to cope with disaster. rnThis volume defines resilience as it relates to disaster management at specific stages: mitigation, prevention, preparation, and response and recovery. The book illustrates models by which to evaluate resilience at levels ranging from individuals to NGOs to governmental jurisdictions and examines how resilience can be developed and sustained. A group or nation?s ability to withstand events and emerge from them with their central institutions intact is at the core of resilience. Quality of response, capacity to improvise, coordination, flexibility, and endurance are also determinants. Individual case studies, including Hurricane Katrina in the United States, the London bombings, and French preparedness for the Avian flu, demonstrate effective and ineffective strategies. The contributors reveal how the complexity and global interconnectivity of modern systems, whether they are governments, mobile populations, power grids, financial systems, or the Internet have transcended borders and created a new level of exposure that has made them especially vulnerable to extreme events. Yet these far-reaching global systems also possess the ability to alert and respond at greater speeds than ever before. rnThe authors analyze specific characteristics of resilient systems?the qualities they possess and how they become resilient to determine if there are ways to build a system of resilience from the ground up. As such, Designing Resilience will inform a broad range of students and scholars in areas of public administration, public policy, and the social sciences.
Comfort, LK, B. McAdoo, P. Sweeney, S. Stebbins, M. Siciliano, L. Huggins, T.Serrant, S. Scheinert, J. Augenstein, and N. Krenitsky. 2011. "Transition from Response to Recovery: A Knowledge Commons to Support Decision Making Following the 12 January 2010 Haiti Earthquake." Earthquake Spectra.1-21.
Abstract: The transition between disaster response operations and sustainable recovery represents a critical stage in rebuilding communities following disaster. We document this transition process following the January 12, 2010 earthquake in Haiti through direct field observation, review of documents and official situation reports, as well as interviews with key managers from organizations engaged in disaster operations in Haiti. Without an effective transition to recovery, disaster-stricken communities risk escalating failures in performance of key technical functions that underlie the provision of basic services in health, housing, education, commercial activity, and environmental restoration essential to building a resilient society. The interactions among social, environmental and technical systems are rarely tracked systematically, but are central to the longer-term economic, social, and technical development of a disaster-resilient community. We propose developing a knowledge commons, infrastructure, multilingual, interdisciplinary, and interjurisdictional -- to sustain a system-wide learning process as a primary goal for the reconstruction of Haiti.

Substantive Focus:
Science and Technology Policy PRIMARY
Comparative Public Policy SECONDARY

Theoretical Focus:
Policy Analysis and Evaluation PRIMARY