Hurricanes and severe weather have always been a part of life for Gulf Coast residents. But every storm that occurs helps scientists and emergency planners learn to better prepare for the next one.
This was the case in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. In some areas, numerous residents either refused or were unable to evacuate when the order was given, which resulted in a massive loss of lives. A short time later, southeast Texas residents who learned from the lessons of Katrina, hit the road ahead of Hurricane Rita, only to find that a key freeway had practically turned into a parking lot, making evacuation impossible.
After the 2005 hurricane season, Phil Bedient, a Herman and George R. Brown Professor of Engineering at Rice University, sought to work more extensively with other Texas universities, as well as Louisiana State University (LSU). In the spring of this year, Gov. Rick Perry signed legislation to create the Severe Storm Prediction, Education and Evacuation from Disaster (SSPEED) Center.
Bedient, who has worked for years on flood prediction models for the Texas Medical Center, of which Rice University is part, said that in recent storms, researchers were aware of the potential devastation in some cases, but lacked a coordinated strategy for putting that knowledge into practice.
"There was a failure, in other words, between the academic community and the governmental and emergency communities before Katrina," said Bedient, who serves as director of the SSPEED Center. "The hope would be that these types of centers will help create, if you will, centers of excellence where discussion and exchange between the academic community and the public and private sectors take place."
Bedient will work with representatives from seven universities in Texas and Louisiana, along with the Houston-Galveston Area Council to coordinate strategies for predicting and responding to severe weather, and sharing that information with the people who need it. He said the center already is setting up training programs for local government managers involved with emergency response.
The Big Picture
The participating universities offer complementary areas of expertise that together can further disaster planning and response, said Marc Levitan, director of the LSU Hurricane Center, and Charles P. Siess Jr. Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at LSU.
"To solve these complex problems, you really have to have a massively multidisciplinary approach," he said. "If you're talking about evacuation, for example, that's kind of like the parable about the blind men and the elephant. Each one feels a different part of the elephant and thinks it's a different kind of animal."
He said some would say evacuation is a transportation problem; others would say it's a problem of understanding the public's perception of evacuation needs; and still others would say it's about communication and ensuring the public understand the risks involved.
"Even something that seems like it's as straightforward as evacuations, it's not. You have an integration of lots of different areas of expertise, lots of different practical fields that would all come together to make an optimal evacuation plan, and it's just one example of the different kinds of areas."
Combining expertise of the project's partners enables the institutions to tackle challenges encountered on numerous fronts, including public outreach and education, evacuation strategies, flood modeling, infrastructure risk assessment and even border challenges related to storm activity.
One major area of study and collaboration for the center partners will be flood prediction. Officials at the Texas Medical Center use an online tool developed by Bedient and his group at Rice University to manage flooding, which could serve as a model for other regions.
The Flood Alert System, which is in its second evolution known as FAS2, is a real-time, Web-based warning