Thursday, August 28, 2008

Saving lives through smarter hurricane evacuations

MIT News: Hundreds of lives and hundreds of millions of dollars could potentially be saved if emergency managers could make better and more timely critical decisions when faced with an approaching hurricane. Now, an MIT graduate student has developed a computer model that could help do just that.

Michael Metzger's software tool, created as part of the research for his PhD dissertation, could allow emergency managers to better decide early on whether and when to order evacuations -- and, crucially, to do so more efficiently by clearing out people in stages. The tool could also help planners optimize the location of relief supplies before a hurricane hits.

….Because many of these managers have never had to confront the life-or-death realities of an approaching hurricane, they need a consistent analytical framework to consider the sequence of complex decisions that they need to make. For example, a poorly planned evacuation could cause roadway gridlock and trap evacuees in their cars -- leaving them exposed to the dangers of inland flooding. As another example, ordering too many precautionary evacuations could lead to complacency among local residents, who might then ignore the one evacuation advisory that really matters. "All in all, this is a complex balancing act," Metzger says.

The concept of evacuating an area in stages -- focusing on different categories of people rather than different geographical locations -- is one of the major innovations to come out of Metzger's work, since congestion on evacuation routes has been a significant problem in some cases, such as hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Metzger suggests that, for example, the elderly might be evacuated first, followed by tourists, families with children, and then the remaining population. The determination of the specific categories and their sequence could be determined based on the demographics of the particular area.

Hurricane evacuation route marking along highway on the Texas Gulf Coast, shot by Junglecat, Wikimedia Commons, under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2

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