Hurricane season: Predicting in advance what could happen

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A Sandia National Laboratories team with the help of the Los Alamos National Laboratory is gearing up for hurricane season, readying analyses to help people in the eye of a storm.
The Department of Homeland Security’s National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center (NISAC), jointly housed at Sandia and Los Alamos national laboratories, studies how hurricanes and other disasters disrupt critical infrastructure, such as roads, electricity and water systems.
Hurricane season began June 1 and runs through Nov. 30. It generally peaks in August and September, notwithstanding Superstorm Sandy’s appearance late last October.
With the onset of hurricane season, NISAC has two jobs: conducting annual “hurricane swath” analyses of probable impacts on the Gulf Coast and East Coast and providing quick analyses of crisis response in the face of an imminent hurricane threat to the United States.
A swath analysis looks at how a hurricane might interrupt critical services and at impacts to infrastructure specific to an area, such as petroleum and petrochemical industries in Houston or financial services in New York City. It also looks at such things as the economic impact of the storm or how it could upset food deliveries.
Federal officials pull swath analyses off the shelf when a hurricane seems likely to hit a particular place. They used the New Orleans report a few days before Hurricane Isaac headed toward that city last August.
“While it was too far out for us to do our analysis, they could use the report as a first cut,” said Dan Pless, NISAC program lead at Sandia.
National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center teams of infrastructure modelers and analysts, such as this one, work to provide a crisis response to the Department of Homeland Security for national disasters such as hurricanes.
NISAC’s portfolio includes a dozen swath analyses updated every few years, two cities at a time. A team coordinated by Mark Pepple, NISAC fast response lead, this year updated reports for Houston and Corpus Christi, Texas; last year the work focused on Miami and Tampa. Updates keep information from becoming too stale, Pless said.
NISAC came up with the original analyses, but is working on updates with state and local officials and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Each report uses a “reasonable bad scenario” that would be possible in the particular area, with local officials deciding what scenario would be most useful for disaster planning, said Pless and Pepple. For example, a Category 5 hurricane isn’t likely in New York City because colder waters dampen hurricane strength, but a Category 3 is within reason.
“These storms form in the Caribbean, they form in the Gulf. They can get quite strong down there,” Pless said. “They don’t form in the North Atlantic. They have to travel there.”
The analyses — also useful in other natural disasters — consider impacts to the infrastructure, the population and the economy, Pless said.
“We look at where power outages are likely,” he said. “For Houston, it would examine the possible national impact on petroleum supplies and whether we should worry about that.”
They look at so-called food deserts: urban areas where food delivery might be interrupted, he said.
NISAC also has found that some local officials want more demographic information. Officials in Florida, with its high retiree population, want to know where the elderly are concentrated, Pless said. The amount of time for analysis is shrinking, Pless said. NISAC had 48 hours for Hurricane Gustav, which hit the South in late August and early September.