Biocomplexity Institute of Virginia Tech researchers discuss how agent-based modeling makes an impact during times of disaster

When you’ve modeled disasters before, what information has arisen from those models?
One result of our modeling efforts includes the importance of communication, especially access to trustworthy information about such things as environmental conditions, evacuation routes, recommended actions, availability of resources, and weather forecasts. For example, people are more likely to comply with requests to evacuate if they know they will not be stuck in traffic, or to shelter-in-place if they know that their family members are safe. Our models have shown that restoring communication even partially in the affected areas can save lives.
- Samarth Swarup, Research Associate Professor, NDSSL

By looking at roads that pass through FEMA 100-year flood zones, we can identify small back roads that might become vital arteries or dangerous choke points during a flood. This can guide first responders as they prioritize which routes to maintain and manage. As a 2nd Lt of the Southwest Virginia Mountain Group, I built a mapping system of roadways and flood zones for search and rescue agencies that is also available for public use.
- James Schlitt, MPH, PhD Candidate, NDSSL

What is an important thing the models show that people don’t think about?
We can identify groups of people who might be more at risk than they think because of factors they're not even aware of. For example, someone who's not hit directly by the hurricane might lose power or water because of damage in other places. Or they might find that local stores can't be resupplied because of a combination of damage to highways, difficulty distributing fuel, and priority being given to emergency recovery efforts.
- Stephen Eubank, Deputy Director and Professor, NDSSL

People are generally very good at thinking about the motivations and actions of individuals, however population-level outcomes depend on interactions between the actions of millions of individuals as well as infrastructure which may be damaged. Detailed computational models help us figure out these outcomes and explore how to prioritize responses. For instance, if electricity is out for several days, cell phone batteries will run out, and maintaining cell service might not be as high a priority, even though communication is still important.
- Samarth Swarup, Research Associate Professor, NDSSL

How do models help predict the outcome of natural disasters like hurricanes?
Beyond the models of physical effects, we're learning how to build models that incorporate people's behavior in response to the disaster. We're not there yet, but it's important to try, because human responses, unlike hurricanes, are things we can influence. We need to understand how much we can mitigate the effects of a disaster and how best to do it.
- Stephen Eubank, Deputy Director and Professor, NDSSL

A key challenge that models tackle is resource allocation. Having even admittedly uncertain forecasts as the event nears, enables people and responders to assess risk and make better plans. Models can predict everything from the location of an event to its impact on roads, water supplies, and other essential infrastructure.  If you know where the damage is going to be concentrated, it's easier to allocate utility workers and first responders in the aftermath.
- James Schlitt, MPH, PhD Candidate, NDSSL

How should people prepare for disasters like this?
It is very important for people to pay attention to news and information about the disaster and to comply with evacuation or shelter-in-place orders. There is a lot of planning that goes into emergency management and the government and health agencies have access to a big picture perspective that individuals don't have (though individuals have a lot of information they can access as well). For all our ability to predict how hurricanes will evolve, we can still be surprised. For example, Hurricane Harvey stalled over Texas last year and caused far more rainfall than expected.  It’s important to be prepared for an impact that is worse than expected.
- Samarth Swarup, Research Associate Professor, NDSSL

The most important thing if you're ordered to evacuate, is to do so immediately; especially if you, or those under your care, have any medical conditions that complicate transport or require power or medical resources. If you are not evacuated, it comes down to keeping safe, hydrated, warm, and fed in that order. Everyone should have a couple days of shelf stable food, water or water storage, a basic first aid kit, cleaning supplies, and sources of heat, light, and information ready to shelter in place.
- James Schlitt, MPH, PhD Candidate, NDSSL

If you don't evacuate, plan to live self-sufficiently "off the grid" for an extended period of time. Think seriously about what that means in a modern society. Make sure you have some means to both send and receive messages, but don't expect a rescue team to show up in the middle of a storm or flood to get you if you change your mind. If things don’t get as bad as expected, be thankful; if they get worse, be glad you prepared for it.
- Stephen Eubank, Deputy Director and Professor, NDSSL

Where should people turn for the best information?
Really one of the best sources of information can be your local county emergency services web and social media portals. They are far more likely to know which roads are safe, which water supplies are contaminated, and other vital information. State and federal resources, such as the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and NOAA, provide excellent access to first-hand information, and local news sources do a good job of aggregating this information.  Twitter can provide an amazing human sensor network for real-time conditions to supplement these sources in an event like this. We've developed ChatterGrabber to scrape Twitter data and used it for several public health emergencies.
- James Schlitt, MPH, PhD Candidate, NDSSL

Don’t underestimate the usefulness of an old school AM radio.  The antennas can be safely out of the disaster area, you don't need wires connecting all the way to your house, and a car’s battery can keep one going for a long time.
- Stephen Eubank, Deputy Director and Professor, NDSSL

Published by Tiffany Trent, September 12, 2018