An MIT Alumni Association Publication

With Data from Wind and Waves, Guarding Against Disaster

  • Ari Daniel PhD ’08
  • Slice of MIT

Several times a week, Lily Bui SM ’16, PhD ’20 sets her alarm for 5:50 a.m. It wakes her before the Southern California sun rises, and within 10 minutes she’s parked at Newport Beach, “cup of coffee in hand, that morning chill in the air, hearing the ocean, and watching the waves,” she says. But the thing that really snaps her awake is entering the water with her surfboard. She chats with her fellow surfers bobbing in the morning waves. And then Bui is up on her board, hanging five or ten, falling down, laughing in the froth. “It really feels like being a kid again,” she says. Bui is drawn to the ocean as a way of being submerged in something bigger than herself. Paddling and riding the waves, “I’m just very aware of everything around me and extremely grateful to be alive.”

Like the other surfers, Bui monitors the wind, tide, and weather to track the best swell. But one difference is that after she puts her board away, she continues tracking storms and waves at the Pacific Disaster Center (PDC) as a disaster management specialist. Several months after she was hired, in November 2020, two massive hurricanes—Eta (Category 4) and Iota (Category 5)—tore through the Caribbean Sea on their way to lashing Central America. Even before the hurricanes made landfall, emergency operation efforts and command centers about to experience the brunt of the storms contacted the PDC for data that would help inform evacuation protocols, infrastructure triage, and humanitarian aid.

At PDC, the role of Response Lead cycles among four staff members, each in the hot seat for two weeks at a time. Active responses are concerted efforts, especially during major events. For example, during her time leading the Eta and Iota response, Bui helped coordinate the teams that gathered, organized, and visualized the data, often in the form of maps, which were then bundled into a brief for civilian and military leadership on the ground. Once the storms had inflicted their damage, the Response Team coordinated the gathering of data and satellite imagery concerning affected areas. Imagine a Google map with each of these real-time data fields as a separate layer that can be turned on or off to help local leadership make decisions that mitigate risk. The Response Team can never be sure who will see what they produce, so they have to ensure the maps “speak for themselves after they leave our hands,” Bui says. “There’s a responsibility that comes with what information goes on that map and how it is represented.”

There’s a responsibility that comes with what information goes on that map and how it is represented.

Bui, whose professional background includes science communication and who has a master’s degree from MIT in comparative media studies, earned her PhD in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. After studying disaster risk reduction and the importance of early warning systems, she finds it validating to apply her academic training to real disasters in the real world. Whenever a major weather event is unfolding, she says, her job becomes “high pressure and rapid paced.” But she loves the feeling of working within chaos to find a way to “help people make decisions when they really matter the most.” She readily admits, “This is a dream job for me.”

And it’s a job that’s increasingly in demand, given our changing climate. “We are seeing more extreme weather events,” says Bui, “and not just storms, but droughts and wildfires and flooding.” And these events are intersecting with ever-denser population centers. This is a crucial point, explains Bui, because a weather event is only classified as a disaster when it happens to people. And her job is to keep as many people out of harm’s way as possible.

At the end of a long day or week, Bui’s preferred way of decompressing is on her surfboard. On the weekends when she doesn’t have work waiting for her, Bui remains in the Pacific until her arms get too tired, letting the power of the ocean transport her.


Photo of Lily Bui at Newport Beach, California, by Mei-Li Restani.