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
system. The system provides radar rainfall data, rain data summaries, and flood and rain predictions for the Brays Bayou watershed, where the medical center is located. The Web site also shows video of key parts of the Harris Gully, which runs under the medical center. The water level in that gully is important, said Jim Sindelar, assistant director of emergency preparedness for the Texas Medical Center, because if the water in the gully begins to rise beyond a certain point, the medical center must act to avoid flooding on its campus.
Sindelar's group is responsible for coordinating response among the medical center's 46 member institutions and monitoring the medical center's common grounds.
He said the medical center learned from its experience with Tropical Storm Allison in 2001, when flood water entered a tunnel system that connected several of the medical center's hospitals, causing expensive damage in basement research facilities. Now, if flooding appears to threaten buildings in the medical center, Sindelar's team sends alerts to member institutions, and the medical center closes a series of flood gates, based on the flood levels.
"The more accurate information we can get and the farther out we can predict, then that makes it that much easier for us to respond to flood events," Sindelar said.
Sindelar said he uses FAS2 regularly to keep abreast of the potential effects of storms. "During flood events, we're always watching. And they run hydrologic models on a frequent basis, like every 12 minutes, and that gives us an idea of what flooding could occur in the future."
During a recent storm, he said the system proved valuable in assessing the threat to medical center buildings. "We saw the water level started to rise, but we were looking at the hydrology models, and we could tell we were at the peak and that it wasn't going to rise anymore," he said. "So that helps us."
Though FAS2 is the best way to gauge the rain's impact on water levels at the medical center, the center has backup processes in place, Sindelar added.
"The Web site has gone down. We have backups, different rain gauges and so forth, and we've worked with Rice developing those in the event this Web site goes down," he said. "We can always visually go out and inspect the water levels in the gully and react accordingly."
Right now, the system only covers the Brays Bayou watershed and is funded mostly by the medical center, said Bedient. Although legislation passed to create the SSPEED Center this year, the Legislature did not allot any funding for the center. A number of funding proposals have gone out to various sources, he said, and the hope is that eventually such real-time reporting will be possible for other areas along the coast, providing responders with more precise analysis and prediction tools.
"Right now, as a storm is approaching, the first place all of us go is the main TV channels to watch the meteorologists," Bedient said, adding that the meteorologists do well predicting where those storms are going to go. "But you'll rarely hear them talk about the impact that will occur with respect to things like storm surge and exactly how high that surge will be, and not only rainfall, but where the flooding will be. And that's the difference with the center -- we have the ability to bring those impacts down to the urban sector."
In addition to funding specific to the center, institutions will continue with their own research areas and secure funding for their research as they normally would.
Jude Benavides, assistant professor of hydrology and water resources at the University of Texas at Brownsville, said that UT Brownsville will work with other partners to better predict flooding in coastal regions. He said part
of the SSPEED Center's objectives would be to combine storm surge models and local flood prediction models.
Local rainfall and storm surge often combine during a hurricane to worsen flooding. Local flood prediction models show how flooding will occur when large amounts of rain pass through an area. Storm surge models show how coastal waters rise when a storm hits. These cover an entire coastline, rather than watersheds.
"When water is falling over a coastal area, it has to drain into the gulf, or into a lagoon, stream or river that eventually drains into the gulf," Benavides said, "and if that water is elevated because of high storm surge, then that water can't drain as effectively. No one has really studied the interaction between those two physical systems."
Infrastructure challenges may slow the flood prediction process in some areas. For instance, Benavides said that in Brownsville, a limited number of rain gauges and the close proximity of the city's radar system impede real-time rainfall and flood assessment. Benavides said he's working to secure funding that would help improve Brownsville's local weather prediction infrastructure.
A Wide-Ranging Resource
The SSPEED Center will serve as a resource by sharing research knowledge with emergency officials and government, and by developing new and improved tools for emergency managers, such as real-time analysis and combined flood models. However, the center's purpose goes beyond emergency managers, including helping the public, public officials and private industry prepare for severe weather.
Researchers at LSU not only work with state officials during emergencies, but also work with nongovernmental organizations, such as the Red Cross and private industry. For instance, Levitan said another group within LSU studies the potential environmental impact of severe storms and works with industry to solve challenges related to potential flooding in the area.
"In southeast Texas and Louisiana," Levitan said, "we have a high concentration of industrial facilities -- refineries, pipelines, plants, storage tanks and all kinds of hazardous materials, in addition to landfills and other areas where once these things get flooded, you potentially have opportunities for significant contamination and environmental hazards."
In addition to contributing expertise and research in hydrology, UT Brownsville will study border issues related to severe weather so public officials will be knowledgeable and prepared for the complications related to the border in an incident, such as evacuations and crime.
Education and outreach -- not just to government officials but also to the public -- will be an important part of the SSPEED Center's mission, said Benavides. The University of Houston is working on education and outreach. Benavides said education of the public was one of the most important results the center could hope to see.
"We can't really do that much with the technology at the public level if the public isn't aware of what the public is required to do for themselves," he said.
The University of Houston will also work to assess infrastructure risks.
LSU will provide expertise in the areas of evacuation planning and storm surge modeling, as will the University of Texas at Austin. Texas A&M University and Texas A&M at Galveston will also study the impacts of storm surges and provide expertise in coastal evacuation planning. Texas Southern University and the Houston-Galveston Area Council will also supply expertise in transportation and evacuation planning.
By working with the public, and the private and public sector, the SSPEED Center is helping to apply academic research in the real world.
"One of the main goals of this center -- and the state Legislature's goal in giving the approval for the center -- was to say, 'Look, we have emergency managers out there who are not necessarily utilizing one of the best assets for staying on top of recent and new technologies -- and that is academia,' Benavides said.
"Academia is out here working on these issues. They're not necessarily in the ivory tower anymore. We're tackling real-world issues that are meeting real people's needs."