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UTRGV grant from AXA Research Fund will support study of flood risk in Valley colonias

Dr. William Donner, principal investigator on the AXA grant and UTRGV sociology program coordinator, reviews a chart with Karen Rodriguez, a May 2016 UTRGV sociology graduate who has been hired as a graduate research assistant to Donner, on a project that will study the flood risks of Texas coast colonias. (UTRGV Photo by Paul Chouy)

By Gail Fagan 

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – MAY 27, 2016 – A $250,000 award from the AXA Research Fund to The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley will enable researchers to study the flood risks of one of the state’s most vulnerable populations – those living in Texas coast colonias.

The funded project – “An Environmental and Socioeconomic Evaluation of Hydrological Risks in Lower South Texas’ Colonias” – is being led by principal investigator Dr. William Donner, sociology program coordinator and a noted researcher on disasters, environmental sociology and demography.

Donner cited the often substandard housing, lack of infrastructure and access to transportation, language barriers and the legal status of colonia residents as important factors in determining their safety and vulnerability in the face of extreme events.

“What you have in the region is a classic recipe for what we call vulnerability which means to be at risk for suffering negative impacts from extreme events, such as hurricanes, flooding and hail,” Donner said. “If we can understand their vulnerability we can do something to mitigate those vulnerabilities; if we understand their resiliency we can do something to facilitate that resiliency as well.”

The AXA Research Fund was created by the global insurance and financial services company AXA in 2007 to build knowledge on risks to better prevent them. The corporation grants funding worldwide to support research projects on environmental, life and socio-economic risks. The selection process is overseen by a Scientific Board composed of well-known academics.

Grant researchers will work with a local community organization, La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), and the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago, which has contributed monetarily to the project and will assist in data collection by providing specialized interviewers who understand the culture and how to gain access and contacts where people might not be 100 percent trustful of the people interviewing them, Donner said.

To collect necessary data, the researchers will use mapping software to identify and map colonia locations in Hidalgo, Cameron and Starr counties and randomly select those to study and interview residents. The team intends to collaborate with researchers from the natural sciences to incorporate analyses of the flood risks and develop models to predict inundation patterns for Gulf Coast hurricanes that have a heavy impact on the colonia populations.

“We are hoping to really develop a set of policies or information that can be used to develop policies that can help assist folks who live within these communities to better prepare for and respond to floods when and where they occur,” Donner said.

Donner said another goal of the project is to give UTRGV students hands-on experience in social scientific fieldwork, data analysis, and interviewing and translating the information to something policy makers can use for long- and short-term planning. 

Karen Rodriguez, 23, a May 2016 graduate from UTRGV with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, said she was excited to be hired as one of the graduate research assistants for the project.

Set to enter the master’s program in sociology and become a professor, Rodriguez said, she appreciates the opportunity to work on the background research – called literature review – of flooding, disasters and other topics related to the project, as well as to designing the survey questions.

“I knew I was going to learn a lot from Dr. Donner on research techniques, writing and statistics. I think it is going to help me a lot, not only giving me professional experience but in my personal experience, to be more in touch with people in the community,” Rodriguez said.

With recent increases worldwide in extreme weather, there has been an increase in the demand for emergency management practitioners locally and statewide. In fall 2016, UTRGV will offer a master’s degree in disaster studies to help meet the demand.

The 36-hour program, which Donner helped develop, will provide students with formal training in a transdisciplinary and multicultural approach to the study and management of disasters.

Its classes will be offered on both the Edinburg and Brownsville campuses and online, and will include social and natural sciences, government and public administration, humanities and Geographic Information Systems.

Dr. Water Diaz, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and an expert on disaster-related research, describes the program and the grant as true, engaged scholarship.

“This is stuff that is going to have a real impact on the lives of real people right now. It is not just going to be people interested in disasters as a scholarly field of scientific research, but will have an impact of the lives of people right here,” Diaz said.

For more information on the grant or the master’s degree in disaster studies, contact Donner at

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