[ skip to content ]


Several plans exist for the emergency evacuation of Hampton Roads, but how adequate are they? The Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) has awarded $300,000 to Old Dominion University engineers to get an up-to-date answer to the question.

The 11-month study, administered by ODU's Virginia Modeling, Analysis and Simulation Center (VMASC), will focus on evacuations ordered when hurricanes are threatening Hampton Roads. It will address the complicating incidents-wrecks, vehicles running out of fuel, debris in the road, lapses in emergency response coordination and irrational behavior of motorists-that have reduced the efficiency of hurricane evacuations elsewhere.

Standstill traffic and blocked roads, for example, are what many Americans remember about evacuations, such as those in Texas for Hurricane Rita. The bridges and tunnels in Hampton Roads are notorious bottlenecks and present special problems for evacuation planners.

John Sokolowski, research professor and director of research at VMASC, is the principal investigator of this study. He has led several of VMASC's transportation modeling projects and was responsible for working with the state Office of Domestic Preparedness to bring this research to fruition.

"Simulation provides a valuable addition to this study that will allow for the exploration of many scenarios not possible with more traditional analysis," Sokolowski explained. "It will provide policymakers with a better understanding of the breadth of possible outcomes under varying conditions."

Asad Khattak, ODU's Batten Endowed Chair in Transportation Engineering, is the leading transportation specialist on the research team. He joined the university last year after serving for more than a decade on the transportation faculty of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where he developed the Carolina Transportation Program.

The project's "statement of work" acknowledges the existence of a state evacuation plan that will be implemented if a natural or manmade disaster should force Hampton Roads residents to leave the region. Portions of the plan were developed by a private civil engineering firm and others are the work of public agencies.

"Work accomplished under this (project) expands upon the efforts of the other organizations," according to the statement of work summary. "It complements rather than duplicates other results and findings of those studies and on-going activities, including the Virginia Hurricane Evacuation Study and evacuation transportation analysis by the Virginia Transportation Research Council."

"A lot of evacuation plans do not really account for unanticipated incidents, the crashes, et cetera, that cause half of the everyday roadway congestion," said Khattak. The other half of congestion happens at peak traffic flow periods such as workday rush hours and is called recurrent congestion. Because it can be anticipated, recurrent congestion is easier-but by no means simple-for planners to address.

If a high-category hurricane were headed for Hampton Roads and mandatory evacuation was ordered, the potential for congestion will probably develop in patterns we have seen before, Khattak said. "In a sense you are creating a recurrent congestion situation compounded by incidents," he explained. In other words, an evacuation nightmare will be something like a tractor-trailer getting wedged in a tunnel just at the start of evening rush hour.

But in an emergency evacuation, the congestion problems often are made worse than rush-hour tie-ups by motorists' fears, indecision and plain old bad decisions. Khattak tells of evacuees who hitch their boats to their vehicles and throw as many of their belongings as possible into the boat. (Decisions such as this can put unnecessary vehicles, as well as debris, on the roads.) One example from a Florida evacuation was of a single family that insisted on fleeing in a caravan of several passenger vehicles and an RV towing a boat.

The work of Khattak and VMASC researchers will include an evaluation of baseline evacuation models, one of which is a general model that is widely used in the United States and another of which was prepared by the civil engineering firm that has done evacuation studies specifically for Virginia.

Then the work will bore in on Hampton Roads. A primary area of investigation revolves around the Safety Service Patrols (SSPs), the vehicles with yellow emergency lights that come to the aid of motorists who have run out of gas, had a flat tire or been involved in a fender-bender. SSP operations and their incident reports over recent years will be scrutinized in order to identify patterns of interruptions in traffic flow. Questions to be answered might include: How do heavy rain or high winds impact Hampton Roads traffic? How quickly can SSPs clear up incidents and what is the relative advantage of having extra SSPs in certain corridors?

Emergency managers in all Hampton Roads localities will be interviewed to collect data about recent traffic experiences during hurricane threats. The evacuation plans of these localities, including strategies for communicating with the populace, and channels of emergency response coordination between localities and agencies, will be evaluated.

In addition, existing research will be mined for information not only about traffic, but also about the socio-economic factors and behavioral tendencies that might affect evacuation decisions.

Evacuation incident scenarios will be worked into models, and computer simulations will be run to frame overall evacuation planning and to identify the best responses emergency managers can employ to mitigate the effects of unanticipated incidents.

Khattak, who is the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Intelligent Transportation Systems, sees potential in the application of information technology to transportation systems. As such, he predicts that the ability of emergency managers to provide real-time information to evacuees just before they leave home and during their travel will be a critical element of a successful plan.

"Information is key, and especially given that we have greater and greater access to information," he said. "Communication through the Internet, cell phones and other electronic media has been a very effective strategy in difficult situations."

Contra traffic flow-for example, the use of all lanes of major arteries to handle westbound evacuees-is planned already if a Category 3 or higher hurricane is predicted to make landfall. But also important to any evacuation of Hampton Roads, Khattak believes, is the ability of the region to keep the roads open. This can be done by increasing the number of SSP incident response vehicles on major evacuation routes, possibly by drawing in emergency help from other cities in Virginia. He said incidents are sure to happen, but if a typical incident can be cleared up in 15 minutes rather than 30, then the benefit to traffic flow will be significant.

VMASC has several other ongoing projects requiring transportation modeling, including the Hampton Roads Cargo Project and the Critical Infrastructure Modeling Project.

The cargo project was requested by the state legislature. It is assessing the impact of increased container ship traffic to the region as a result of the new Maersk terminal being built in West Norfolk. The critical infrastructure research is examining the effect of disaster events on the region's infrastructure including energy, water and wastewater, communication and transportation.

VMASC also completed a transportation study of the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel that was included in The State of the Region: Hampton Roads 2006, produced by ODU's Regional Studies Institute. VMASC's transportation analysis contributed to an understanding of the increase in traffic delay expected at the HRBT over the next 10 years and its economic impact for the region.

This article was posted on: July 20, 2007

Old Dominion University
Office of University Relations

Room 100 Koch Hall Norfolk, Virginia 23529-0018
Telephone: 757-683-3114

Old Dominion University is an equal opportunity, affirmative action institution.