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Researchers at ODU's VMASC Put Their Multidisciplinary Expertise to Work to Help Protect Hampton Roads from Hurricanes

It's hurricane season, and East Coast residents, including those in Hampton Roads, are checking weather forecasts and maps produced by the National Hurricane Center and The Weather Channel, keeping a wary eye on the potential for storms to form in the Atlantic.

It only takes one significant storm - a Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast, or a Hurricane Isabel in Hampton Roads - to place citizens at immediate risk and disrupt life dramatically into the future.

As the lowest-lying major population center on the Eastern Seaboard (and second only to New Orleans in the United States), Hampton Roads has the potential to suffer devastating damage and loss of life from a severe weather event.

So researchers at Old Dominion University's Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC) have put their multidisciplinary expertise to work to provide insight that can help anticipate and manage the impact of severe storm events.

The research involves encouraging threatened citizens to evacuate, identifying who might stay behind in the event of a major storm, and addresses how to most efficiently evacuate Hampton Roads and the best way to protect and help vulnerable populations recover after a major weather event.

VMASC Executive Director John Sokolowski said the research - which involves separate teams of M&S researchers collaborating with colleagues in government, industry and academia - reflects how VMASC's mission has evolved.

"These are real-world issues, which modeling and simulation can help address in a multidisciplinary fashion," Sokolowski said. "Not only can these simulations be a tool for decision-making bodies locally and nationally, but they also reflect our commitment to modeling and simulation as a discipline."

The newest project is known as HEED, the Hurricane Evacuation Encouragement Demonstrator. Barry Ezell, chief scientists at VMASC, received a $50,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) to aid and encourage evacuations.

A major problem for first responders in weather events is citizens who disregard mandatory evacuation orders. HEED is designed to graphically spotlight the risks of staying behind when a hurricane is bearing down.

A user of the model enters their ZIP code and the projected category of the storm. HEED instantly produces a graphic representation of the estimated damage to their home.

"It's a very innovative approach, graphically demonstrating just how dangerous it would be if someone stayed in their home during a major weather event," Ezell said.

According to Joshua Behr and Rafael Diaz, research associate professors at VMASC, hurricanes do not affect everyone equally. Some populations and neighborhoods exhibit more vulnerability to injury from storm surge and wind damage because of proximity to rising water, the age of housing stock and roofing materials. Other populations have more extensive financial and social networks that allow them to better prepare for and manage the outcome of a storm event.

In the past 14 months, Behr and Diaz have conducted extensive interviews of Hampton Roads households to show which neighborhoods are most likely to contain medically fragile, vulnerable and at-risk populations.

The interviews, conducted through ODU's Social Science Research Center, go far beyond simply identifying the communities that are most at risk due to the immediate effects of wind and storm surge. The researchers have developed a multidimensional metric of vulnerability that includes physical, medical, networking and psychosocial aspects of vulnerability, both during the event itself and in the post-event recovery period. These data are being used to compile a set of maps illustrating the most medically fragile and vulnerable populations in Hampton Roads, right down to the neighborhood level.

The interviewing and mapping efforts have also led to the creation of a new theory about what might motivate a citizen to ignore a mandatory evacuation order, known as "Tethering Theory."

Behr said those that have the means and ability to evacuate the region in anticipation of a storm don't always do so, and often those that, on the surface, appear to lack the means and ability to evacuate, in fact do so. To better understand why this is the case, the researchers hypothesize that social networks and a sense of obligation or professional commitment 'tether' individuals to weather a storm locally.

According to Behr, residents are tethered to the region for various reasons, including a sense of obligation to a family member who may be medically fragile and who is dependent on an informal network of family members. Residents may also be tethered due to a sense of pride in their property, or a fundamental distrust of government (and its evacuation orders).

"The behavioral choice of what to do in the face of an impending storm is much more complex than simply whether or not the individual has transportation. There are many motivating factors for defying an evacuation order," Behr said.

The VMASC information will be available to local emergency planners and state agencies like VDEM, so that they can create tailored evacuation messages that may pierce through residents' predisposition to stay.

If the majority of the region's citizens do decide to evacuate in advance of a hurricane, VMASC researchers are wrestling with one more issue: How do residents logistically leave the area via the existing road infrastructure, which features numerous choke points at bridges and tunnels?

Mike Robinson, research assistant professor and transportation research leader at VMASC, has for several years been modeling traffic patterns in Hampton Roads with senior project scientist Peter Foytik. They have presented their hurricane evacuation model for Hampton Roads to members of Congress at the Modeling and Simulation Expo in Washington, D.C.

The work is constantly being updated to incorporate new road construction and the ever-increasing number of cars on the region's roads. An evacuation for a Category 2 storm or higher would take more than 24 hours, but that time could be reduced if eastbound lanes of I-64 were reversed.

Robinson said the evacuation model uses the assumption that everyone in the affected area will leave, which other VMASC research demonstrates isn't likely to occur. However, it also emphasizes how important it is for residents to make a plan. "This is a very complex undertaking," he said.