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ODU Researchers' Study Will Provide Valuable Data for Emergency Planners Assisting Vulnerable Populations

With the threat of a devastating hurricane hitting Hampton Roads in the minds of emergency planners across the region at this time of year, three Old Dominion University researchers are leading a study that could provide foundational information in planning assistance for medically fragile and vulnerable populations.

Joshua Behr, Rafael Diaz and Barry Ezell, all research associate professors at ODU's Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC), are building maps of the region's communities to show which neighborhoods are most likely to contain medically fragile and at-risk populations.

"Fully understanding the vulnerability of many social and economic population segments is essential to disaster planning and mitigation efforts, including the staging of materials and emergency services personnel prior to the storm making landfall as well as response and recovery efforts in the weeks and months following the event," Behr said.

For example, more accurately estimating the spatial placement of residents that will not or cannot evacuate allows planners to more efficiently gauge where to place shelters and stage resources and personnel.

The researchers' study, funded by a $113,000 grant from the Perry Fund for the Study of Critical Issues, goes far beyond simply identifying the communities that are most at risk from things like wind and storm surge.

"Eighty percent of the people who look at vulnerability stop there," said Behr, a political science professor by background. "But the ability of an individual or family unit to recover and make oneself whole medically, emotionally and financially is a big part of vulnerability."

Behr and Diaz have developed a multidimensional metric of vulnerability that includes physical, medical and psychosocial aspects of vulnerability both during the event itself and in the medium-term post-event period.

For example, the authors have developed the concept of "soft vulnerability," meaning those that are most sensitive to gouging, price spikes and commodity shortages immediately following a storm.

They have developed as well the concept of "reconstitution vulnerability," which applies to those that are more likely to be taken advantage of by institutions and individuals who arrive post-storm to make one whole: that is, contractors and insurance companies that may take advantage of people who are unsure or trusting of unscrupulous contractual language or who are unfamiliar with methods of recourse in the event of fraud.

"Vulnerability of a particular community in terms of post-storm impact is the product of complex interactions among geographic characteristics, built environment, awareness, social networks and resources," Behr said.

The study's authors have a special interest in the capacity of the medical safety net system - which functions as the source of primary care for large segments of our population - to meet the needs of communities following a storm, noting that, "With job displacement and loss of insurance, we can expect substantially increased demand for primary care from safety net medical services in the 24 months following the storm, this from a safety net system that currently is already at capacity."

The data being gathered by Behr, Diaz and Ezell through telephone surveys and neighborhood canvassing by ODU's Social Science Research Center will be used to compile a set of maps illustrating the most medically fragile and vulnerable populations in Hampton Roads, right down to the neighborhood level.

"We want to measure people's propensity to shelter in place, shelter at a government-sponsored site or evacuate from the region completely. For those remaining in the region, we want to draw a coherent picture of expected need in that neighborhood," Behr said. "In a big storm, this is the kind of thing that can save lives."

The data will be compiled and made available to emergency planners in each locality late this year, in time to add an additional layer of information to natural disaster planning efforts for next year's hurricane season.

Among the goals of the data maps are:

Determining critical information about vulnerable populations that will allow for the more efficient staging of materials and resources prior to an impending storm;

Generating data that will allow planners to be proactive in designing pre-emptive interventions targeting particular vulnerable population segments or neighborhoods;

Identifying mitigation opportunities for assisting vulnerable population segments and neighborhoods; and

Identifying vulnerable populations that are least probable to evacuate due to concerns about the management of chronic conditions.

And for the ODU researchers, the data in these maps are informing their broader efforts to provide a real-time tool for emergency planners. This past summer, Behr, Diaz and Ezell produced algorithms that projected wind and water damage and population displacement figures used during the hurricane simulation VMASC hosted in May for government officials from across the region, and Virginia's Office of Commonwealth Preparedness.

Using the knowledge gained there, and through this fall's surveys, VMASC is building a prototype "decision support tool" - a piece of software that manages spatially based data layers containing information on businesses, employment, health, schooling and community vulnerability.

These data can be juxtaposed under an impending or projected storm path. The software will take the data layers and, by way of an algorithm (tailored specifically for the Hampton Roads region), instantly produce short-, medium- and long-term projections for displaced populations, demand on health services infrastructure, unemployment, school attendance, economic growth and the like.

"As the storm path forecast is updated, the decision support tool will readily allow for new projections, right down to the neighborhood level," Behr said.

This article was posted on: August 25, 2011

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