Residents of the United States Gulf Coast may not have as much to fear during upcoming hurricane seasons thanks to a partnership between the Mississippi Enterprise for Technology (MsET), NASA’s Technology Development and Transfer Office at Stennis Space Center, the University of Southern Mississippi, Northrop Grumman Information Technology and the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT).  Through a NASA Stennis Technology Transfer partnership, Northrop Grumman is developing a public, real-time web site that addresses traffic issues during hurricane evacuation, by enhancing Florida’s existing traffic counting system.

The enhanced system will be introduced to other Gulf States in anticipation that it will be integrated into those states’ current traffic counting systems, resulting in a standardized gulf regional hurricane evacuation system.  “This system will improve the ability of states to deal with the variables that factor into any hurricane evacuation, especially evacuations that involve multiple states,” said Charlie Beasley, vice president of MsET.  “The technology could also play a future role in other types of evacuations and emergency management events.”

In 2005 alone, hundreds of thousands of people were evacuated from heavily populated areas of the southern states during Hurricanes Dennis, Katrina and Rita.  Many of these efforts proved grossly unsuccessful. Thousands of motorists were locked in traffic jams for up to 10 hours on interstates and highways, often with cars running completely out of gas. The contra flow method of moving both sides of traffic on the interstate in one direction was also confusing for evacuees.

Mike Powell, project manager for Northrop Grumman in Ft. Walton Beach, Fla., said the main objective of the NASA/FDOT project is to use Florida’s existing traffic polling system, enhance it with Geographic Information System (GIS) data for an area, and create a public website that offers real-time evacuation information for affected areas. This system would allow law enforcement and Emergency Operations Center (EOC) officials to make split-second decisions regarding when to open or close a road and which alternate routes to use during an evacuation. Powell said that by doing this, the real-time system will allow for a more orderly evacuation in a shorter period of time by providing information on the best direction for evacuees to leave.

“The key to the system is a website that maintains traffic counts which will determine when an evacuating artery can come to a standstill,” Powell said. “At that point, the system will recommend alternate routes to maintain the flow of an evacuation without causing gridlock in main arteries.”

He said that while evacuees will be able to use the web site to make the best time-sensitive decisions for leaving an area, emergency vehicle, rescue operations and law enforcement can also use the web site to find uncongested routes. “This project will develop a tool that can be used by anyone planning to enter or exit the affected area,” Powell said.

The Florida Department of Transportation’s current polling system collects critical information, such as the average traffic count at hourly intervals and the weight, speed and axel of vehicles traveling on all state and federal roads in the state.  Heavily populated metropolitan areas often have expensive Intelligent Transportation Systems, or ITS, in place to automatically monitor traffic flow and make real-time adjustments. Powell said that it is not economically feasible to develop an ITS to monitor much larger and less populated areas. However, he said that by incorporating the FDOT data with GIS data, such as the population of an area, they will be creating “a poor-man’s ITS for an entire state.”

“People will get an idea of what’s coming their way and be able to make arrangements,” he said. “This idea has been kicked around and kicked around, and this is the first time that we’ve been able to utilize existing traffic polling infrastructure resources to focus on real-time polling activities during a hurricane evacuation event. We now have the existing infrastructure to do it and the need is there to have it done.”

Other elements to be incorporated will include weather and satellite software provided by federal agencies at Stennis, to provide traffic weather conditions that affect road safety conditions, and current road maintenance and construction information. In times of non-emergency conditions, the system could also be used to assist during high traffic-flow times, such as large concert-type events, general traffic congestion, or traffic congestion due to accidents.

“If all goes well, we’ll be able to show GIS traffic trends by Oct. 1,” Powell said.  “(The system) certainly should be active in the Florida Panhandle by the next hurricane season.”  Northrop Grumman plans to have the mapping and traffic trend analysis complete, the web site active and the GIS integration process up by October of this year.

MsET and Northrop Grumman are providing their geospatial information expertise to develop the mapping necessary for this project. NASA’s Technology Development and Transfer Office at Stennis Space Center supplied the partnership vehicle, in this case a Technology Transfer partnership as well as resources to aid in overall project coordination.  A Technology Transfer partnership is a jointly funded technology development partnership between NASA and an industry partner to produce a product or group of products meeting both NASA and commercial customer requirements.

“We began working on this idea before the 2005 hurricane season, and now we can more fully understand how valuable the enhanced and expanded version of this hurricane evacuation system will be for Florida and the entire Gulf States region,” Beasley said.

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