Professor Works on Strategies for Regional Evacuations

May 29, 2007
Los Alamos research looks at evacuation modeling for major catastrophes

Having essentially become the traffic evacuation guru, Brian Wolshon speaks excitedly about computer models that almost pinpoint each vehicle in an entire region.

The LSU evacuation expert is parlaying his knowledge gained from hurricanes Ivan and Katrina to his new work and greater access to resources with the renowned Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

"People saw it (evacuation modeling) as theoretical and not practical until Ivan went poorly," Wolshon said about the 2004 storm. "That's when I started getting calls."

Wolshon, LSU associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, played a key role in the evacuation planning that helped Katrina go a lot smoother in 2005 - at least, in terms of the traffic flow. Much of that was thanks to sending more people north and the use of one-way contraflow.

Wolshon, who also works with the LSU Hurricane Center, was recruited by Los Alamos because the laboratory had plenty of computer modeling expertise, but little knowledge of hurricane preparedness and evacuations.

Nationals labs such as Los Alamos are focusing on a broader range of homeland security projects now that the Cold War is long over and they are not just developing nuclear weapons, he said.

Now, Wolshon said, the Los Alamos resources for a largely unstudied field make him a kid in a candy shop.

He is studying ways to make New Orleans-area evacuations better with more buses, trains and, if necessary, a second round of evacuations after a disaster occurs. The vast majority of the more than 1,500 people who died from Katrina died while stranded in flood waters or shelters after the storm.

But he also is looking at how to prepare similar evacuation plans for places such as New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

"They have a lot more people and a lot more people without cars," Wolshon said.

Pairing with the Los Alamos expertise, Wolshon said they hope to develop the "holy grail" of systems to best allocate resources in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

Now, Wolshon can do much more "out-of-the-box thinking" with all the computer simulations he can run, such as creating separate traffic lanes just for buses and the sick and elderly.

"We're the idea people here at LSU," he said.

Visitors from as far as Japan, Australia and New Zealand have come to view his plans, as they prepare for emergencies such as tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, Wolshon said.

Next week, Wolshon is working at the Sandia National Laboratory, also in New Mexico, to develop ways to evacuate a 20-mile radius from a nuclear power plant in an emergency.

"It's very different because there's no warning and the plans can change based on the direction of the wind," he said.

After that, Wolshon said he is "eager" to study evacuation re-entry as "desperate" people try to return home en masse during or after an emergency.