News

When hurricanes take aim

By Michael Padilla

Photography By Dino Vournas

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Officials can soon turn to Sandia’s guidance for fast, critical evacuation decisions

Officials can soon turn to Sandia’s guidance for fast, critical evacuation decisions

HURRICANE REVIEWERS — Patricia Pacheco (8114) and Lynne Burks (8116) review Sandia’s ongoing hurricane project activities.   (Photo by Dino Vournas)

When a hurricane approaches landfall, local, state, and tribal governments must work together to decide if and how they want to evacuate large populations to save lives. During this time, emergency managers must make quick and effective decisions, often with outdated information and models.

To ensure that emergency officials are better prepared in making effective decisions, Sandia researchers are coordinating and compiling insights from the National Hurricane Program Technology Modernization working group on hurricane emergency management into an updated guidance document. The goal of the working group is to facilitate the insertion of new technologies into the National Hurricane Program.

Nerayo Teclemariam (8112), who oversees the project for Sandia, says team members have been leveraging Sandia capabilities such as the Standard Unified Modeling and Mapping Integration Toolkit (SUMMIT) for the work and have been able to tap into various groups throughout the Labs including Division 6000, and Centers 8100 and 8900.

Built on decades of modeling and simulation experience

“The work is built on our deep history of modeling and simulation at Sandia that began as a part of our nuclear weapons mission and has evolved over time to support a broader set of national security missions,” Nerayo says. “We are making significant contributions to the program including developing general guidance for local and state emergency officials who make critical decisions during hurricane evacuations.”

Funded by Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Sandia has been working on four areas of the project including developing a guidance document; creating a hurricane evacuation study (HES) tool; establishing metrics for evaluating the hurricane planning and response processes; and evaluating infrastructure modeling to support vulnerability analysis in the HES tool and to extend the scope of infrastructure considerations for hurricane planning.

“What we’ve been doing over the past couple of years is helping the overall program figure out how to improve the technology they use in deciding when to evacuate in the event of a hurricane,” says Trisha Miller (8112), who helped lead the project. “We are adding a lot of efficiency to their planning process and that in turn makes their decision more up to date, more accurate, and more relevant to the actual storm that they’re facing.”

HURRICANE TEAM – (from left to right): Brandon Heimer (8112), Patricia Pacheco (8114), Nerayo Teclemariam (8112), Lynne Burks (8116), Josh Bauer (8954), and Aaron Gibson (8954). (Photo by Dino Vournas)

Developing guidance

Before the guidance document was created, Sandia conducted a gap analysis based on more than 50 interviews with emergency managers, regional planners, federal stakeholders, tool developers, and individuals with a role in the program. Out of this analysis, researchers were able to get a sense of the roles of emergency planners, the challenges they faced, and what has worked and what hasn’t worked before and during evacuations.

“Out of that gap analysis we came up with seven high-level directions or areas where the program could improve their process by inserting new technologies,” Trisha says. “We then worked to further identify the technology needs and define the technology requirements. What has evolved is the new methods and technologies we’ve delivered to the program.”

The guidance document provides a framework for emergency planners across the program to help them develop localized hurricane response plans, hurricane evacuation studies, and post-storm assessments.

“The guidance document provides a huge benefit to the program because it enables emergency managers across jurisdictions impacted by hurricanes, from New York to Florida to Texas and even Hawaii, to share best practices and lessons learned for evacuation decision-making,” Trisha says.

Hurricane evacuation study tool improves efficiency, lowers costs

The main focus of the HES is to help determine evacuation zones and clearance times — the time it takes the population to evacuate from the zone — for a given area that may be impacted by hurricanes. The HES tool software model that utilizes information or roads systems, population distribution, and potential storm conditions.

“Through the Technology Modernization effort Sandia was able to develop the HES tool to improve the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the HES process,” says Trisha. “This means that jurisdictions will be able to update their HES much more frequently, resulting in better decision-making and ultimately lives and dollars saved.”

This information is critical to the evacuation decision that emergency managers make during a real storm. The current process for conducting an HES is very lengthy and resource intensive. As a result, some jurisdictions don’t update their plans for 10 to 15 years.

“We wanted to increase that frequency of how often the plan is updated,” says Nerayo. “We need to take into account the latest developments in states including changes in populations, changes critical infrastructure, new roads, and traffic patterns.”

By updating the technology, the Sandia team estimates there will be a 70 percent reduction in time and about a two-thirds reduction in cost in evacuation planning.

HURRICANE TRACKER – Nerayo Teclemariam (8112) says Sandia is making significant contributions to the National Hurricane Review program including developing general guidance for local and state emergency officials. (Photo by Dino Vournas)

Validating the HES tool

Sandia led two pilot studies with working group members from North Carolina and New York City to validate the HES Tool process.

“Both North Carolina and New York City were in the process of updating their HES using the existing process during the pilots,” Trisha says.

The Sandia team met with pilot partners in their respective locations to compare their HES undertaking with the process being developed in the HES Tool. The pilot studies led to the development of additional capabilities in the HES Tool and feedback on the diverse needs of different regions impacted by hurricanes.

“We have built something that can offer a lot of benefit, and so being able to follow through and see that come to fruition will be really nice,” Trisha says. “We are very encouraged with what has been built to date and the interactions that we have had.”

Sandia will be handing off the work to partners at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Lab where the planning tool will be integrated with the response tool developed there.

The integration of the tools will greatly benefit the National Hurricane Program, says Trisha.

“The key thing that we’re bringing to the project, and hopefully that the end users really see as a benefit, is that they can update their plans and understanding of when to make that evacuation decision on a much more regular basis,” she says.