Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

WV State News

April 20, 2014

ODU helps develop evacuation model for disasters

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) — It took nine hours to get most of the people to the interstate across the river when the zombies closed in on Charleston.

If a major road had been rendered impassable (as has been known to happen in such attacks), the authorities could have jumped on a computer (in a locked room), run a new evacuation scenario (in minutes, thankfully) and seen where best to redirect vehicles (thanks to researchers from Hampton Roads).

The zombie takeover in West Virginia is among the more whimsical of the hundreds of what-ifs that have been run by people across the country on a web-based evacuation model that was developed in part by Old Dominion University.

Plagues of undead aside, the online tool, called the Real Time Evacuation Planning Model, allows emergency managers and government planners to run countless hypotheticals on locations in the United States to see how long it would take to get people out. It can be tailored to show large-scale evacuations caused by a natural disaster or terrorist attack, or scaled-down to look at potential bottlenecks for crowds leaving the county fair or an air show.

The model allows users to save scenarios and make them open to the public via the Internet. Virginia’s Department of Emergency Management is preparing for the next hurricane season (it starts June 1) by modeling various situations now, said Stewart Baker, the state’s hurricane program manager.

The evacuation model itself arrived by its own circuitous route. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory created a prototype of the tool for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said Mike Robinson, director of ODU’s Center for Innovative Transportation Solutions.

Virginia had some federal catastrophic preparedness money to continue the work, and in 2012 ODU’s researchers picked up where Johns Hopkins had left off. Robinson’s team refined the model, added a user’s guide and other functions — such as a widget that allows the user to add a plume — and saw it through third-party testing to validate its accuracy.

The model draws from census data and allows users to add more people to an area. Roads can be shut down, reversed and even created if, say, the police wanted to send vehicles through an open field. Scenarios can be run assuming people respond slowly or more quickly.

The model is available to anyone with an Internet connection in the U.S. Robinson counts that openness as one of its strengths, because it places the tool in the hands of emergency response planners across the country.

Officials in Florida were among the earliest adopters. The state’s division of emergency management is testing the model against its own evacuation planning software and has been pushing it to counties, said Andrew Sussman, the division’s hurricane program manager.

Researchers are conscious of concerns that the model could be used by people interested not in saving lives but in figuring out how to inflict more damage, Robinson said.

“There’s been quite a lot of discussion about that,” he said. “So far, the decision has been made: The good outweighs the bad.”

Federal agencies have been involved in the development process, and the model allows officials to look at every scenario performed, so “it’s not left open and unobserved,” Robinson said.

Despite its name, the model does not use real-time traffic conditions. Incorporating that function is a goal for the future, Baker said.

The model also does not imbue its hypothetical crowds with artificial intelligence or human behavior. In setting up the simulation, the user tells the model how many people it wants to leave under a certain set of conditions, then runs the program to see how the road network handles the ensuing crush of vehicles.

Robinson estimated a simulation evacuating all of Hampton Roads might take 20 minutes to run; smaller areas take less time. Past models took two or three hours on a scenario, he said.

The quicker turnaround time will help emergency responders adjust their evacuation plans on the fly when something changes during a disaster, Baker said.

Like, if the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel were blocked by people fleeing a hurricane. Or zombies.

Dave Forster writes for The Virginian-Pilot.

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