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Spotlight: NJIT Faculty Experts Available to Discuss Hurricane Katrina

Satellite map of hurricaneJanuary 2006

Three New Jersey Institute of Technology experts are available to discuss levee rebuilding, sewer and underground utilities and waste water management—all issues facing rescuers and future reconstruction efforts in areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Sewer and Underground Utility Expert: Priscilla Nelson

“The severe damage to utilities caused by Hurricane Katrina will require months to rebuild,” said civil engineer and natural disaster specialist Priscilla Nelson, provost at NJIT. “Gas service will have to be shut off in many areas of the city, including the French Quarter, before repairs can be made.  About one-fourth of New Orleans has an underground power distribution system.  The brackish water—salt water mixed with fresh—will cause electrical equipment to corrode, and some of these effects may not be felt until much later.”

“Another problem in the aftermath of Katrina,” she added, “is access to drinkable water, and high bacteria counts and toxic metals in floodwaters. Water main damage will be expected, and the depth of standing water and water pressures could cause special problems for fragile building foundations as well as for underground gas and chemical storage tanks, for which seepage can leave their contents useless.”

Nelson numbers among the world’s geotechnical engineering experts and is the author of more than 120 technical and scientific publications. Her forte has been the design and construction of underground facilities and tunnels. She is a former senior executive at the National Science Foundation (NSF) and a former University of Texas professor.  She received her doctorate in geotechnical engineering from Cornell University, master’s degrees in engineering from University of Oklahoma and Indiana University, and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Rochester in geological sciences.  Contact Nelson ( 973-596-3220 (office) or 973-669-4654 (home).

Levee Expert:  John Schuring

“Most levee failures can be attributed to one of three mechanisms,” said John Schuring,  PE, professor of civil and environmental engineering at NJIT. “The first is sideways hydrostatic pressure, which essentially pushes over the levee from the high water side. This usually means that the levee is not massive enough. The second is seepage of water through or beneath the levee, which leads to erosion from the inside out.  Such failures usually mean that the levee was not water resistant enough.  The third kind of failure is known as overtopping, during which waves splash over the top of the levee and erode them from the outside inwardly.”

Schuring holds several U.S. patents for developing methods of treating polluted soil. Schuring has consulted with engineering firms as an expert in pile foundations, differential settlement of structures, and landslides. He has worked on engineering projects for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Energy and the New Jersey Department of Transportation. He is a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers; a member of engineering honor society Tau Beta Pi; and a member of the New York Academy of Science. Schuring received his doctorate and bachelor’s degree in geotechnical engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology and his master’s degree in the same field from the University of Alaska. Contact Schuring ( at 908-295-7070 (cell); 908-852-6716 (home); 973-596-5849 (office).

Waste Water Management Expert: Taha Marhaba

“According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the flooded areas in New Orleans include more than 60 chemical plants, oil refineries and petroleum storage facilities,” said Taha F. Marhaba, associate professor of environmental engineering and director of the New Jersey Applied Water Research Center at NJIT. “Assessment of the water quality and sediments in New Orleans is ongoing,” he added. “These waters and sediments may carry toxic materials from flooded environmental superfund sites to waste material areas from hospitals and universities that carry radioactive isotopes to asbestos loose from old buildings to petrochemical wastes from damaged facilities. Many of these contaminants are suspected carcinogens and may carry other chronic effects and acute toxicity in humans and animals in addition to their effects on the environment receiving them. Cleanup of the areas will be a major effort which the country has never seen before.”

Marhaba has an expertise in water quality and most notably has developed what is known as the spectral fluorescent signatures (SFS) technique. The technique is used to rapidly identify organics in water—organics that could be problematic. The SFS acts like a fingerprint of water, characterizing its organic content and allowing researchers to see if the water contains natural or unnatural sources. Most importantly, the SFS allows researchers to determine the organic character of watersheds and to check the water quality. Marhaba’s work has been published in Water Research, Journal of Environmental Engineering, Journal of Hazardous Materials and others. He received a doctorate and a master’s degree in environmental engineering and a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering all from Rutgers University, New Brunswick. Contact Marhaba ( at 732-668-6942 (cell); 973-642-4599.