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 Phillip Rollfing  

Hurricane Experts

Professors’ research helps officials
make hurricane-evacuation decisions



When Texas Gulf Coast residents want to know their risk for hurricane damage or when — or even whether — to evacuate, they can turn to Texas A&M University professor Mike Lindell — or, at the very least, to the publications, computer programs, and training techniques resulting from his research.

“ Needless evacuation as a hurricane approaches costs money,” says Lindell, a professor of landscape architecture and urban planning based in the College of Architecture’s Hazard Reduction & Recovery Center. “But erroneously failing to evacuate costs lives.”

“ Unfortunately, most of the local officials who must make the decision whether to evacuate their communities and when to do so receive little training and have no experience in making such critical decisions. Worse yet, major urban areas take so long to evacuate that local officials must make an evacuation decision when an approaching storm is so far offshore there is only about a one in seven chance it will strike their jurisdiction. Basically, deciding whether to evacuate or not can be a lot like playing Russian roulette.”

Lindell, who is trained in psychology but whose work also incorporates concepts from meteorology and traffic engineering, wants to help local officials by providing them the information they need during a hurricane’s approach. The challenge is to give them the right amount of the right types of information and give it to them in a format most compatible with their decision making processes.

Over the past three years, the National Science Foundation has funded Lindell’s work with several computer science graduate students in developing an Evacuation Management Decision Support System (EMDSS). During that time, he and co-principal investigator Carla Prater, a lecturer in the College of Architecture, also worked with graduate students in urban and regional science to collect survey data on household evacuations from Hurricanes Lili, Katrina, and Rita. The data from these evacuations are being integrated into EMDSS so it can make more accurate predictions about hurricane evacuations.

“ Current tools used for hurricane tracking don’t have a capability for performing real-time evacuation analyses. Because they’re static, they can’t give as accurate an assessment of evacuation feasibility as local emergency managers and elected officials need ,” Lindell says. “In its operations mode, our system will allow users to continually revise their evacuation analyses as a storm approaches.”

Users also will be able to use its training mode before a hurricane approaches to practice making evacuation decisions. “Over time, we will develop a set of hurricane scenarios—some of them historical and others artificial—that teach decision makers how to cope with a problem in which there are major uncertainties about the behavior of the approaching hurricanes and the evacuating population,” Lindell adds.

Now that EMDSS has been developed and has the data it needs for predicting household evacuation times, Lindell and his colleagues are beginning to work with graduate and undergraduate students in psychology to systematically test the effectiveness of different information displays. During their experiments, they will be able to vary the information that appears on the students’ computer screens, allowing researchers to observe how specific types of information affect people’s interpretation of a situation, their mental workloads and their resulting evacuation decisions.

“ I believe these experiments will yield valuable data about how people track hurricanes,” Lindell says, “as well as about how their evacuation decisions are affected by different hurricane scenarios and team characteristics. We can’t require decision-makers to take courses in how to make the right choices when a hurricane hits, but we can provide them with tools they can use to improve their decision-making skills.”

In addition to his work on EMDSS, Lindell will be working with other faculty in the Hazard Reduction & Recovery Center to develop a web site that will allow a coastal resident to identify the hurricane risk area in which he or she is located.

“ Some of our past research has shown between one- and two-thirds of coastal residents couldn’t identify which risk area they were in, even when we gave them a risk area map of their own county,” Lindell says. “People’s inability to determine whether or not they were at risk was clearly a major problem during the Hurricane Rita evacuation in Harris County.”

The web site will allow users to go online and input their street address, then the program will identify whether they are in a hurricane risk area and should evacuate. “This program will be designed to supplement the efforts of local officials, not replace them. A Category 4 or 5 hurricane will threaten so many people that local officials can’t warn each household individually,” he continues. “We want to develop a tool that will help in situations in which local officials don’t have enough staff to do everything they want to do.”

And if these two computer programs aren’t keeping him busy enough, Lindell has just begun a new project under a grant awarded to both Texas A&M and Oregon State University to integrate research on tsunami and hurricane surges.

“ We will be working with engineers to construct mathematical models of survival rates for people caught in these huge waves, especially those who are evacuating in automobiles at the time the waves hit,” Lindell says. “We want to develop a realistic model of the fatality rate per foot of storm surge so decision makers can forecast what will happen if a surge even strikes after they decide not to evacuate.

“ We will also continue to collect data on the evacuation costs of households, businesses, and local government agencies so local officials can forecast the impact of an unnecessary evacuation. Once we have completed this project, local decision makers will have more of the information they need to make very difficult evacuation decisions when there is uncertainty about whether these surges strike.”


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Mike Lindell

Carla Prater