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8/25/2005
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IT Helps States Brace For Storms

Government agencies in Florida and Texas are using data to understand hurricanes and better prepare for them.

Last year's Atlantic coast hurricane season was a record breaker, with nine named storms blasting the southeastern United States. While Charley, Ivan, Jeanne, and company tore off roofs and savaged property, federal, state, and local governments enlisted IT in a number of ways to help citizens and responders. With the 2005 hurricane season expected to be even worse--the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is predicting as many as 11 name-worthy storms--new emergency-response technology is being put to the test. So far this year, there have been three hurricanes in the Atlantic and five named tropical storms.

In states such as Florida and Texas, government agencies are using data to understand the nature of these storms and better prepare people to cope with them.

Florida typically receives the brunt of the hurricane season, which begins June 1 and lasts through November. The 2004 season was one of the worst since record keeping began in 1851 as four hurricanes and a tropical storm made landfall across the state and forced about 9.4 million Florida residents to be evacuated.

Florida's Department of Management Services is responsible for delivering telecommunications and IT services to state agencies. Since last year's storms, the department has started working more closely with telecom providers, including BellSouth, Cingular Wireless, and Verizon Communications. The first step has been to get them to identify assets used to maintain communications in an emergency and ensure that they're available. The program's next stage, which takes effect as a storm approaches land, is to gather personnel from major providers in an emergency operations center, where they can more easily respond to problems. The third part of the program is post-storm asset recovery, which involves retrieving emergency equipment such as radios, satellite phones, and laptops from operations centers so they're ready for the next storm, says John Ford, director of telecommunication and wireless services for Florida's Management Services Department.


Miami-Dade's E-gov portal provides information during emergencies, Web developer Alexandrova says.

Miami-Dade's E-gov portal provides information during emergencies, Web developer Alexandrova says.
While it's crucial to keep lights and phones on during a storm, Florida also wants to get information to citizens. Miami-Dade County, which covers 2,000 square miles and has a population of more than 2 million, spent the last year working with IBM and Interwoven Inc. to improve an E-government portal that's integrated via Web services with the county's legacy applications. "In the event of an emergency, this is the main way of communicating with people about road closures, traffic problems, or shelter locations," says Assia Alexandrova, senior Web developer with Miami-Dade's Enterprise Technology Services.

Miami-Dade is working on a pilot program to push data from the Web site to mobile devices. Citizens and county workers would voluntarily provide cell-phone or mobile-device numbers so that emergency alerts could be pushed to them. The pilot involves county employees, with citizen testing to follow. "There's a demand for this kind of information to be available to people wherever they are," particularly if they can't get to a PC, Alexandrova says.

The test application uses IBM's WebSphere Everyplace Mobile Portal software to extend WebSphere's reach to mobile devices, including cell phones and BlackBerry devices. "Miami realized that not everyone is home and tied to their PCs in an emergency," says Tim Thatcher, IBM's director of workplace and portal products. The biggest challenge is "that when you're dealing with citizens, you have no control over the types of devices they've purchased," he adds.

To account for this, IBM has included in WebSphere Everyplace Mobile Portal the ability to communicate with the most common mobile technology, and it will create additional profiles when new technology is introduced. "It would be completely cost-prohibitive for Miami-Dade to write a unique markup language for every device they support," Thatcher says.

In Texas--where hurricanes are a seasonal threat to people living and working near the state's 634 miles of coastline, which features 10 seaports--state agencies are studying historic data to help them better prepare for future hurricanes. "Hurricanes are the greatest single natural catastrophic threat to this state by far," says Jack Colley, coordinator for the Texas Governor's Division of Emergency Management.

After the 2004 hurricane season, Gov. Rick Perry had the Division of Emergency Management evaluate its ability to evacuate key areas of the state. Using technology from the University of Texas, the agency was able to see digital models depicting the impact of a hurricane on five key areas: Brownsville/ South Padre Island, Corpus Christi, Port O'Connor, Galveston-Houston, and Beaumont/Port Arthur. The agency used the results of these models to review and update evacuation plans for each area.

Hurricane Dennis, which struck in July, was clocked with winds in excess of 90 mph and dumped more than 7 inches of rain on parts of Florida.

Hurricane Dennis, which struck in July, was clocked with winds in excess of 90 mph and dumped more than 7 inches of rain on parts of Florida.


Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy
Texas' Division of Emergency Management works with the University of Texas at Austin Center for Space Research to use technology to predict the impact a hurricane will have on a particular location. This is done using visual models that account for tidal surge and wind effects. "We're specialists in real-time data collection and placing that data in analytical context," says Gordon Wells, a professor and researcher at the center.

Wells and his colleagues re-create historical storms by plugging wind, coastal surge, and precipitation data as well as satellite imagery into software that the National Weather Service and the Army Corps of Engineers developed. The center uses Silicon Graphics Inc.'s OpenGL Performer developer tools and Leica Geosystems GIS & Mapping LLC's Erdas Imagine and ESRI's ArcGIS software to build the virtual hurricane models. It makes the models available to state officials over a high-speed connection from the university's supercomputers.

The Federal Aviation Administration's Atlantic Operations Control Center uses a slightly different type of modeling software to map the information and processes used to respond to storm emergencies. The FAA uses Mindjet Corp.'s MindManager software in conjunction with DeLorme Publishing Co. mapping software to organize information about the availability and location of landing systems and radar, communications, and navigational and lighting aids for the 1,300 East Coast commercial airports the center monitors.

When Hurricane Jeanne blew through the Southeast last year, the FAA tried to keep air traffic flowing until the last minute, even as a 50-to-60-square-foot section of roof tore away from one of its control facilities in Pensacola, Fla. "When we started working the first hurricanes last year, a lot of data came in" from different airports in the Southeast about their status and readiness for the storms, says James Deck, an FAA national airspace area specialist in Atlanta. The traditional process was to track the data on a dry-erase board. "I pulled out MindManager and started tracking information on laptops and desktops, including pre-hurricane checklists for airports and their equipment," such as the availability of portable air-conditioning units, aircraft for flying assessment teams to areas hit by the storms, and people to manage this equipment.

This year, Deck is saving MindManager maps on a daily basis so he can create a more-precise archive of events. This information should prove invaluable as the country moves into peak hurricane season next month.

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