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July 3, 2014

New Tool Developed By ODU Researchers Aimed at Encouraging Residents to Evacuate Before Big Storms

Sol SherfeySol Sherfey

A new tool developed by researchers at Old Dominion University's Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC) is designed to graphically demonstrate to residents of southeastern Virginia the threat posed by high winds and rising water during a storm.

It's called HEED, or the Hurricane Evacuation Encouragement Demonstrator, and it was developed by VMASC for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM).

One of the major risks to populations during major storms is the small number of residents who make the decision not to evacuate despite facing real danger.

Known as "Tethering Theory," the factors that might motivate a citizen to ignore a mandatory evacuation order have been studied by VMASC researchers Joshua Behr and Rafael Diaz, research associate professors. This not only puts citizens at needless risk, it also costs money and risks the lives of first responders who have to try to rescue stranded residents.

Sol Sherfey, senior project scientist at ODU-VMASC, and the principal investigator for the HEED project, said Terrie Suit, the former Secretary of Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security, sought to have a tool created to contend with that risk.

"She asked us if we could develop something to encourage them to leave when we predict a hurricane," Sherfey said. Developed with three grants from VDEM totaling $240,000, the HEED prototype is operational and available through the VMASC website, https://heed.vmasc.odu.edu.

HEED was developed to encourage and aid citizens during an evacuation. HEED provides customized evacuation routes and video animations of what citizens may experience during a storm if they decide not to evacuate. Here is how it works:

Users put their starting address, chosen evacuation route, and the strength of the storm into the site. Sherfey said HEED has been made dynamic so that real time tracks of storms headed for Hampton Roads can be put into the program.

After users hit enter, they will receive two important pieces of information - their chosen evacuation route, with any expected detours because of wind and high water, and a short, animated video of the view from their front window if they decide to stay. "It's designed to simulate what individuals will actually experience if they decide to stay in their homes in the face of a big storm," Sherfey said.

Once residents make the prudent decision to actually leave, HEED becomes an even more vital tool. HEED mobile provides real-time information to users on their cellphones, included updated storm tracks, and information about emergency shelters and service stations along their evacuation route.

"We've designed the site to be adjustable, so it will continue to be useful even after residents leave their homes," Sherfey said.

The HEED app is free, and for Android phones may be downloaded from Google Play at https://play.google.com. The app also may be acquired from the Windows Phone site at https://www.windowsphone.com. VMASC is in the process of getting the app posted to both the Apple and Blackberry sites, and Sherfey expects it will be available for iPhones and Blackberrys soon.

Sherfey said VMASC researchers will maintain the HEED site through this hurricane season, then turn it over to VDEM, along with the web-based databases of fuel stops, shelters and storm surge data. They have also developed administrative tools to enable state EOC personnel to maintain the databases and the site without specialized programming skills.

VMASC researchers have also created simulations for hurricane evacuation routes, and the challenges facing vulnerable populations during major storm events.