SEATTLE, Wash. - A $4.1 million grant was announced today from the National Science Foundation to provide instrumentation and tools for a new Rapid Response Research Facility, which will promptly collect data about how buildings, roads, bridges and other infrastructure are impacted by earthquakes or wind damage from hurricanes, tornadoes and other storms.

The center will be operated by the University of Washington in collaboration with Oregon State University, the University of Florida and Virginia Tech. Scientists say it will provide assistance to teams that can deploy anywhere around the world, and help compile data about damage in a systematic, high-quality way before it's forever lost to bulldozers, weather, cleanup and repair efforts.

With this information, scientists hope to identify ways to improve building codes, identify weak spots in structures, and take other actions to help mitigate damage from future events. The system will also use the latest and most sophisticated technologies to analyze the landscapes.

"We're able to learn a great deal now with technologies such as light detecting and ranging, or LIDAR, aircraft monitoring, hyperspectral imaging, and other instruments that can analyze seismic and wind forces better than ever before possible," said Michael Olsen, an expert in the evolving science of geomatics, associate professor in the College of Engineering at OSU, and one of the co-principal investigators on the project.

"This new center will allow a much better way to coordinate data acquisition efforts, improve its quality and have more confidence in the findings we make. We'll then work to make that information available to scientists all over the world."

Joe Wartman, a UW associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and center director, said speed is essential.

"Usually with rescue and response efforts, this very valuable data disappears really quickly," Wartman said. "By collecting this data in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, we can begin to understand what went wrong and why. This allows us to better prepare and take precautionary measures in advance of future events."

The interdisciplinary center will focus on two types of natural hazards: wind hazards, such as tornadoes and coastal storms; and earthquakes, which includes earthquake-induced ground failure and tsunamis. It will also offer training to communities that wish to conduct post-disaster investigations themselves, as well as assess the social costs of disasters.

Findings of this type, Olsen said, will also be of value to the Cascadia Lifelines Program at OSU, which is a university-based initiative supported by private industry to help the Pacific Northwest prepare for the devastating subduction zone earthquake and tsunami expected in its future.

The facility will create new software tools for transmitting, integrating, exploring and visualizing the complex data sets. These include mobile apps to assess structural damage in the field and a platform for mixed-media social data gathering. A computer-automated virtual reality environment will also allow people to walk into a room and "see" the disaster scene in three dimensions as if they were there.

"The idea is that you can use the facility to collect data -- either through our staff or our training -- and then you can come to the center months later and recreate the field experience by walking through a damaged building or looking at how much a particular area flooded," Wartman said.

In addition to supporting researchers, the facility will enable citizens to use social media and mobile devices to crowdsource post-disaster data and build awareness about wind- and earthquake-related impacts.

The grant follows the NSF's larger $40 million NHERI investment, announced in September 2015, which funds a network of shared research centers and resources at various universities across the nation. The goal is to reduce the vulnerability of buildings, tunnels, waterways, communication networks, energy systems and social groups to increase the disaster resilience of communities across the United States.

"Under NHERI, future discoveries will not only mitigate the impacts of earthquakes, but also will advance our ability to protect life and property from windstorms such as hurricanes and tornadoes," said Joy Paushke, program director in NSF's Division of Civil, Mechanical and Manufacturing Innovation.