Natural Disaster Protocol – How Can Smart Cities Activate Response Before Its Too Late?

What Are The Ways To Improve Natural Disaster Resilience?

Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm that ravaged Texas in August 2017 resulted in $125 billion damage, as per the National Hurricane Center, US. This was the second-highest damage recorded in history after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 ($160 billion worth damage). Harvey affected over 13 million while caused a minimum of 88 deaths across Texas including Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee.

Scholars reveal that such natural disasters cause way more damage to life and cities than terrorism, especially in places like the Texas or the Caribbean that are prone to devastating storms. Hence, it is vital that as cities and countries around the world to take necessary action against man-made terrorism and also pay equal attention to the havoc caused by natural disasters.  

Recognising the criticality, we have explored the ‘Readiness for Resilience’ program led by the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, sponsored by Qualcomm, and in collaboration with Smart Cities Council, the Business Council for Sustainable Energy and the National Association of State Energy Officials. The program has been aimed at restoring critical infrastructure with smart resilience technology to help communities affected by Hurricane Harvey. 

The program ran community-based workshops called ‘Discovery Workshops’, in the region that involved residents and local officials who experienced the impact firsthand. It identified the specific restoration priorities of the local neighbourhoods and discussed the best innovative practices and smart solutions that can magnify resilience, save lives and limit the damage in the future. 

As a result, the program came up with a “Resilient Technology Roadmap” in four vital areas (as identified) that read (in brief) as follows. 

1. Public Safety 

Major Challenge

Southeast Texas has only two key evacuation routes with few food, gas, and shelter resources.  These routes not being the first to get an emergency support response, they have to tackle a lot themselves. And Coastal Bend comprising the southern gulf coast areas of Texas needs to improve the debris removal procedure. 

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In doing so, communication infrastructure, addressing language barriers, and reaching elderly populations was identified as the major gap. Hence they came up with the following project recommendations:

  • Localised damage prediction – Utilising past and present storm data, GIS and aerial/drone imagery to predict damage at the local level to better inform risk and the needs for evacuation.
  • Proactive debris removal planning – Briefing on removal resources and guidelines before events occur. Identify places where debris is a problem and outline removal resources. Recognise possible options to put debris and get MoU’s in place beforehand. 
  • Evacuation scenario planning – Implementing smarter planning tools that run various “who, what, when, where” scenarios that enable people to better prepare before disasters hit. 
  • Resilient Buildings – Using a combination of disaster risk assessment data with real-time sensor data to recognise structural and performance risk. Enabling enhanced access to sustainable material and repair guidelines via a web portal or mobile application. 

2. Energy & Utilities 

Major Challenge 

What Are The Major Challenges Faced During Natural Disaster?

Even several days after Hurricane Harvey, over 3,900 homes and 300,000 customers were without electricity that impacted communications, computing, sewer, water and other critical utility systems. 19 water system and 31 wastewater systems stayed offline for over three weeks. 

Project recommendations:

  • Localised infrastructure monitoring – Aligning IoT technologies, sensors, monitoring and data opportunities on existing utility infrastructure to provide household service visibility and improve recovery.  
  • Municipal Microgrids – Promoting public-private partnership to discover the feasibility of establishing municipal microgrids that allow crucial community assets to continue operating during a power outage. Exploring funding solutions like direct grant and utility rate-basing and co-investment or innovative funding structure including Microgrid-as-a-Service contracts. 
  • Smart Metering, Smart Grid, and Energy Efficiency – Installing smart grid technologies and systems to reduce power suspensions and financial losses. Deploying automation devices like smart switches to identify flaws in the distribution system and perform corrective actions automatically. Focusing on baseline energy efficiency and energy management projects that assist commercial and residential properties to better withstand extremely bad weather conditions. 

3. Telecommunications & IT 

Major Challenge

Loss of communication is one of the biggest challenges during or after the occurrence of a natural disaster. It forbids people from receiving assistance or getting updates on outside conditions. All in all, communication proves to be the greatest barrier and greatest saviour in letting people receive help or enabling authorities to respond to the situation as fast as possible. 

Therefore, to enhance communications infrastructure following project recommendations are put forward:

  • Resilient communications infrastructure – Using a variety of networks such as cellular, mesh and WiFi to produce redundancy. Opting for buried fibre lines in regions that are more prone to wind damage. Using fibre optic sensing technology to constantly monitor structural integrity, vehicle and human movement, seismic activity, temperatures, gas leaks, water flow etc. Utilising permanent and temporary towers together for faster response and recovery. 
  • Integrated community notification system – Implementing a multi-faceted notification system that guides people on evacuation routes and provides other critical information to assist people in the aftermath. Deploying visual notification systems like digital signage along the evacuation routes to improve coordination.  
  • Interlocal mobile communications system – Using sensors, cameras and drones to extend the communication reach.
  • Telecom system gap analysis – Conducting a gap analysis of local connectivity and power to create a plan to improve emergency response and recovery.

4. Transportation & Mobility

Bringing transportation, technology and data in one line can help in faster evacuations, rescue operations and effective recovery. For the same, the project recommendations have been put forth as follows:

  • Real-time, coordinated evacuation and resource routing – Using a multi-jurisdictional command centre to reinforce coordination across the evacuation places. By doing this people can be given near real-time information regarding any hurdles on the roadway and availability of food, fuel, shelter and emergency medical resources. 
  • Smart signage – In addition to installing signage on evacuation routes, converting it into an automated system can help suggest reroutes and automate road closure gates. 
  • Evacuation transportation assistance – Coordinating with jurisdiction and different agencies to recognise and assist with transportation and evacuation essentials.
  • Roadway flood protection – Improving drainage and reducing flood risks by upgrading materials, incorporating green stormwater infrastructure, and sustainable design principles while the roadways are undergoing repair work. In addition, integrating water-level, environmental, traffic count and other sensors can help monitor, report and route management in real-time. 
  • Use of alternative fuel vehicles in emergency response fleets – Investing in alternative modes of transport compared to petroleum and power supply. This can allow emergency vehicles in reaching out to victims with critical response service for extended periods of time. Making use of a GIS system to track the locations of fleet and fueling and charging infrastructure.

Expert Advice 

According to Robert Muir-Wood, smart cities face a basic flaw in how they perceive a natural disaster risk. Urban planners or city leaders tend to retrospect events that occurred in recent history to understand how much prepared they are for any type of natural disaster that might hit a city including tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and storms. 

So, a better alternative to this is focusing more on predicting, planning and managing around what is likely to happen in the future. Muir-Wood, as the chief research officer for Risk Management Solutions, works on the implementation of such catastrophe models. The company is involved in developing disaster-risk software models for the insurance industry and advises other businesses and government agencies on how to manage disaster risks. 

Recently, Muir-Wood published a book called “The Cure for Catastrophe: How We Can Stop Manufacturing Natural Disasters that takes the readers through the science of disasters and dos and don’ts on how humans prepare for them. 

Takeaway 

The resilience program rolled out for Texas spans areas that are vital to improving response and recovery. Although the smart solutions have been suggested depending on the challenges faced by the locals and considering the priorities, they can be used by other smart cities across the world to develop their own tailor-made natural disaster protocols to reinforce critical infrastructure and improve resilience.

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