Hurricane Harvey brought record rainfall and flooding to the Houston-Galveston region. The impacts of the storm and ensuing flooding included loss of lives, homes and livelihoods. In response, researchers from the region with expertise in hydrology, climate science, engineering, coastal resiliency, energy, community development and urban planning came together to strategize on solutions.
Birnur Guven of the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) has been participating in efforts to make future evacuations from hurricanes and other tropical storms go more quickly and smoothly.
The impetus for the project, launched at Rice University, came in 2005 when Houston-area residents and inhabitants of surrounding areas – 2.5 million to 3.7 million, by various estimates – fled Hurricane Rita.
It was the largest evacuation in U.S. history. Traffic inched along, when it moved at all, in sweltering, 100-degree-plus heat. Driving 160 miles from Houston to Austin, a common destination for those fleeing the storm, could be a 12-hour to 18-hour ordeal. Many evacuees ran out of gas or broke down along the exit routes, while others turned back in dismay.
The vast exodus was complicated by "shadow evacuees" – residents from lower-risk areas who made evacuations from high-risk areas nearer to the coast more difficult, if not impossible.
Guven, who joined HARC as a research scientist in 2009, has been working since 2010 on a Rice initiative to help minimize "shadow evacuation" problems in future storms.
It's the Storm Risk Calculator, an online tool (http://risk.RTSnets.com) that combines National Weather Service forecasts, computer models and databases to provide real-time, neighborhood-specific updates about hazards.
Residents of Harris County (just inhabitants of single-family dwellings for now) can view color-coded maps that display estimated risks from storm surge, rainfall flooding, wind damage and power outages in half-square-mile areas around their homes. Armed with that information, they can make better-informed judgments about whether or not to evacuate.
The Storm Risk Calculator was unveiled by Rice and City of Houston representatives in June, just in time for the 2012 hurricane season.
In this video, Guven talks about the project, which brought together members of Rice's political science, engineering and computer science faculties.