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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

Defusing Disasters

The Defusing Disasters Working Group aims to mitigate the adverse effects of extreme weather events in Chicago and beyond by leveraging diverse expertise, research and community engagement. Through strategic partnerships and evidence-based approaches, the group strives to empower and support vulnerable populations and enhance urban ecosystems to create healthier, more livable cities.

About the Project

Despite advances in our ability to predict hazardous weather events, the public health impacts of heatwaves, cold snaps, floods, and droughts remains substantial. For example, the Global Burden of Disease Study estimates that annually, approximately 1.7 million deaths are attributable to acute heat and cold exposure. To lessen the impacts of impending extreme weather events, public health officials, health systems, and emergency management teams require foreknowledge of those within their communities that are most vulnerable to extreme phenomena. The occurrence of extreme events in urban environments adds additional layers of complexity to community resilience building due to challenges associated with physical, legal, health, and social infrastructure in urban settings. 

The Defusing Disasters group's work aims to address the complex challenges of community resilience building through the development of a community-centered approach to produce globally applicable but locally informed Hazardous Weather Vulnerability Indices. Learn more in our Buffett Brief on Defusing Disasters, or explore more Global Working Groups' research in our collection of Buffett Briefs >>


Interested in staying informed about the Defusing Disasters Working Group's efforts? Please reach out to the group's community engagement facilitators.

Group Members


  • Daniel Horton, Earth and Planetary Sciences, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences
  • George Chiampas, Emergency Medicine, Feinberg School of Medicine

Northwestern group members:

  • Norrina Bai Allen, Feinberg School of Medicine
  • Benjamin Barrett, PhD Candidate in Health and Biomedical Informatics, Feinberg School of Medicine
  • Michelle Anne Birkett, Feinberg School of Medicine
  • Anne Brenneman, Disaster Management & Community Emergency Preparedness Initiative, Feinberg School of Medicine
  • Jennifer Chan, Emergency Medicine, Feinberg School of Medicine
  • Laura Derks, Director of the Nature, Culture & Human Health Network
  • Peter Graffy, PhD Candidate in Health and Biomedical Informatics, Feinberg School of Medicine
  • Teresa Horton, Anthropology, Weinberg College of Arts & Sciences
  • Kiarri N. Kershaw, Feinberg School of Medicine
  • Abel Kho, Medicine and Preventive Medicine, Feinberg School of Medicine
  • Bill Miller, Chemical and Biological Engineering, McCormick School of Engineering
  • Aaron Packman, Civil and Environmental Engineering, McCormick School of Engineering
  • Courtney Scherr, Communication Studies, School of Communication
  • Amanda Stathopoulos, Civil and Environmental Engineering, McCormick School of Engineering
  • Ashwin Sunderraj, MD Candidate, Feinberg School of Medicine

External group members:

  • Grace Adams, Public Information Coordinator, Chicago Department of Public Health
  • Laurent Ahiablame, Research AnalystChicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP)
  • Santosh Basapur, Assistant Professor, Department of Family & Preventive Medicine, Rush University
  • Kirsti Bocskay, Environmental Health Scientist, Chicago Department of Public Health
  • T.C. Chakraborty, Earth Scientist, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
  • Bruce Doblin, MD, Heartland Alliance Health
  • James Franke, Postdoctoral Researcher in Geophysical Sciences, University of Chicago
  • Gabrielle Guerrero, Project Coordinator, Chicago Department of Public Health
  • Mohammad Heidarinejad, Assistant Professor of Architechtural Engineering, Illinois Institute of Technology
  • Juan Hernandez, District Chief, Chicago Fire Department
  • Sheetal Khedkar Rao, Internal Medicine and Public Health, University of Illinois, Chicago
  • Latrina Lee, Visiting Assistant Professor, School of Design, University of Illinois, Chicago
  • Raed Mansour, Director of the Office of Innovation, Chicago Department of Public Health
  • Alexis McAdams,Research Analyst, Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP)
  • Nikhil Prachand, Director of Epidemiology, Chicago Department of Public Health

  • Rachel Scheu, Principal Director for Research and Innovation, Elevate
  • Kyra Woods, Policy Advisor in the Office of the Mayor, the City of Chicago

Latest Work and Developments

Research Activities

  • The Defusing Disasters Working Group is working toward creating heat vulnerability tools that function at both the community and clinical levels. The community-level tool will be used operationally by the City of Chicago’s Office of Emergency Management and Communication and Department of Public Health (CDPH) in both emergency prevention/response and long-term mitigation contexts. The clinical tool will be used at the doctor-patient level to identify and protect at-risk individuals.
  • In summer 2023, Defusing Disasters group members began collecting the data needed to characterize heat vulnerabilities through the City of Chicago's Heat Watch 2023 initiative. Heat Watch 2023 is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Heat Watch Campaign, which aims to help cities across the U.S. identify specific neighborhoods where heat-mitigating interventions could save lives.
  • With the help of the National Weather Service Chicago Forecast Office, CDPH staff trained and mobilized local community volunteers to drive with specially designed heat sensors on their cars in the morning, midday and evening on one of the hottest and clearest days of the year. The routes were informed by community input. Each sensor recorded data on temperature, humidity, time and location. This information will be analyzed by members of the Defusing Disasters group and will give the City of Chicago data they can use to improve the city’s heat safety strategies.
  • Elevate and the Illinois Institute of Technology are measuring summer indoor air temperature ranges in homes without central air conditioning. This research is being supported by the Defusing Disasters Working Group at the Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs and is part of the group's collaborative efforts to characterize heat vulnerabilities.

Engagement Activities

  • The Defusing Disasters group continues to engage Heat Watch 2023 volunteers in their work through events and updates. Interested in staying informed about the Defusing Disasters Working Group's efforts? Please reach out to the group's community engagement contact Terry Horton.
  • Ultimately, the Defusing Disasters group hopes to expand their collaborative approach outside of Chicago and the U.S. to help prevent extreme heat-related deaths globally and encourage collaborative problem solving and knowledge co-creation among universities, local governments and community groups.
  • In December 2023, the group hosted a data release event highlighting the results from Heat Watch Chicago and discussing next steps with the City of Chicago on how the data can inform development of their Heat Vulnerability Index (HVI). The group is leading a community photovoice project in 2024 to capture lived experiences of dealing with extreme heat. With these submissions, the researchers will identify key themes to inform the design of the HVI