FEMA Disaster-Prediction Software Expands

The Federal Emergency Management Agency plans to add over the next few years two new disaster-prediction components to its Hazards US (HAZUS) system -- currently the software of choice for predicting the economic impact of earthquakes. Those new components will improve users' ability to estimate losses from hurricanes, tornadoes and floods.

FEMA, along with the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS), last week agreed to release a request for proposals for the first component, which will predict the impact of high-wind weather systems. "We identified more models that may serve as the basis for the development of the wind loss estimation model, and we determined how we are going to conduct the procurement process," said Phil Schneider, director of the multi-hazard loss estimation program at NIBS, a congressionally authorized nonprofit organization.

Currently, state and local governments use HAZUS to forecast the number of deaths and economic losses from earthquakes and use those predictions to plan relief efforts. By importing HAZUS' database -- which contains the sizes and types of buildings in an area, along with demographic information -- state and local governments can use their geographic information systems to estimate the number of deaths and economic losses from earthquakes.

HAZUS predicts how the ground will shake, the number of buildings damaged, the number of casualties, the amount of damage to transportation systems, disruption to the electrical and water utilities, the number of people displaced from their homes and the estimated cost of repairing projected damage and other effects.

The wind component, as well as one for floods, will be completed in three to four years and, together with the earthquake-prediction component, will provide more detail on natural disasters than FEMA's Consequence Assessment Tool System (CATS), which FEMA now uses to forecast losses from natural disasters. "States have many different hazards they are dealing with," said Dan O'Brien, the project manager for earthquakes in the New York State Emergency Management Office, which is responsible for coordinating with FEMA and local counties to deal with natural and technological hazards.

"The expansion of the program to the wind module will be of great significance to the state. Hurricanes are one of our greatest natural hazards," said O'Brien, whose office has been using HAZUS for a year and a half. "HAZUS is clearly an expansion in scope as well as a refinement in detail," added Joseph Minor, chairman of the FEMA/NIBS wind committee. "CATS was able to project certain things for certain hazards at a certain level of detail. HAZUS will extend the scope of that to a greater level of detail."

NIBS has a cooperative agreement with FEMA to produce the HAZUS earthquake, wind and flood models and has distributed the HAZUS earthquake modeling software to emergency management agencies in 50 states. NIBS' flood committee is looking into user requirements for the flood modeling software, which will forecast losses from floods. HAZUS will completely replace CATS for predicting losses from natural disasters in about three to four years -- the amount of time it will take to develop HAZUS' wind and flood components, Minor said.

Gil Jamieson, chief of risk assessment within FEMA's mitigation directorate, said CATS will still be applicable for certain disasters. "We're always going to use CATS for chemical [and] biological high-computing, end-modeling capabilities," Jamieson said. "If you're ever in a situation where you're talking about a toxic release or a chemical spill of one sort or another, you want the experts in one place running the model on their high-end computers and then passing along the results to state and local governments."

HAZUS also gives state and local governments equipped with desktop PCs the ability to make quicker decisions in the event of disasters. FEMA provides state and local governments with a compact disc so that officials can make up their own scenarios and input information relevant to their own communities as they plan for disasters. CATS, which was built on a Unix workstation and requires high-end computing capabilities, simply sent the forecast information to state and local governments.

Scott McAfee, a GIS analyst with the earthquake program at the Office of Emergency Services in the California governor's office, said HAZUS is easier to integrate with the state's GIS system, but one of the drawbacks is that results are produced at a slower pace. "If I were to run a scenario, it would take longer on a desktop, Intel-based system than it would on a high-end Unix [system]," McAfee said. He also said it could take "overnight or a day and a half" to get predictions for a complex geological area with many buildings, such as five counties in one metropolitan area.

But Kenneth Taylor, earthquake planner for the North Carolina Division of Emergency Management, warned against pushing HAZUS to do things it wasn't designed to do, such as model in real time. "HAZUS is a planning tool, not a response direction tool. You shouldn't make resource allocation decisions based on this tool," he said. However, he added, "It will be a great planning tool in terms of educating the public and elected officials on how to prepare, plan and mitigate for these conditions."

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