College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Iowa State University Awarded $800,000 EPA Grant to Build Resilience and Protect Vulnerable Groups from Environmental Impacts of Natural Disasters

EPA awards nearly $4 million in funding to five research institutions

As part of its 50th anniversary celebration and recognition of Environmental Emergency Preparedness Month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced on Thursday $3,997,876 in funding to five institutions to conduct research to build resilience in communities and among groups, including children and older adults, who are more vulnerable to the potential environmental impacts of natural disasters.

Kaoru Ikuma
Kaoru Ikuma (Photo by Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University)

Researchers will investigate topics such as understanding the effect of major coastal flooding events and identifying the most promising infrastructure solutions to reduce hurricane and flood-related industrial contaminant releases and exposures.

Iowa State University was awarded an $800,000 grant through EPA’s Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Program for a research project on building resilience in vulnerable, older adult communities facing increased exposure risks to wastewater contamination from flooding in Puerto Rico.

“As a nation, it is our duty to protect those among us who are the most vulnerable, particularly children and older adults,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. “These grants will help protect our communities and provide the information they need to be prepared and stay safe.”

Research conducted by universities furthers preparedness efforts by aiming to understand how communities can become resilient to risks and protect the health and well-being of their most vulnerable groups – young children, older adults, and those who are less amenable to evacuation or relocation during disasters.

“Iowa State University has been a long-time partner with EPA, collaborating on agriculture research and environmental issues,” said EPA Region 7 Administrator Jim Gulliford. “I’m excited to see ISU tackle this challenge. It will also prove beneficial to us here in the Midwest because of our proximity to the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. We know first-hand how flooding affects small communities and vulnerable populations.”

Kaoru Ikuma, assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering (CCEE), leads the research project that aims to improve the scientific understanding of how flooding can elevate the risk of exposure to wastewater-related contaminants among older adults in Puerto Rico. The outputs of this project will provide spatial information on contamination, psychosocial and infrastructure vulnerabilities to risks associated with flooding, which will then be used to plan interventions for increasing resilience in vulnerable, older adult populations. The research project hopes to analyze and widely communicate the health risks of coastal flooding of contaminated sites on vulnerable communities to inform land use and disaster planning efforts.

“This is a project that is truly a convergence of many fields—water resources, environmental engineering, humanitarian engineering, human development, and urban planning, which allows for impactful research that can help vulnerable communities,” Ikuma said.

Others conducting research for this grant are Iowa State’s Cristina Poleacovschi, assistant professor, CCEE; Chris Rehmann, associate professor, CCEE; Carl Weems, professor and chair, Human Development and Family Studies; and University of Utah’s Ivis Garcia, assistant professor, City and Metropolitan Planning.

“We are particularly excited about this project because it allows us to directly assist communities most impacted by natural disasters through both research and outreach,” Ikuma said.


The four other universities receiving grants through EPA’s STAR Program for this work are: 

  • Duke University in Durham, North Carolina – to assist communities in developing comprehensive strategies for building resilience to contaminant releases associated with natural hazards.
  • Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas – to improve the resilience of underserved communities in Houston to hurricane- and flood-induced releases of metals and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from industrial facilities.
  • University of California, Los Angeles – to understand the exposure risks that coastal flooding poses to vulnerable communities due to unintentional releases of hazardous materials from contaminated sites.
  • University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida – to understand the effects of flooding caused by extreme weather events on PFAS distribution and transport, and how societal factors can exacerbate the impacts of PFAS exposure.

For more information, read EPA’s STAR recipient abstracts. Learn more about EPA Research Grants.



Facilities and regulatory agencies take numerous precautions to anticipate and prepare for natural disasters or changing environmental conditions that can pose increased risks for contaminant releases and contaminant migration to nearby communities.

Following a natural disaster, EPA addresses environmental emergencies through laws such as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), known as Superfund, presidential directives, national frameworks, and a series of statutes. The Agency’s emergency management support is led in the field by on-scene coordinators (OSCs) who assess, monitor and evaluate activities during and after a response.