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UW-Eau Claire Researchers Help Wisconsin
Communities Better Prepare for Emergencies

RELEASED: Dec. 3, 2007

EAU CLAIRE — Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire have created prototype mathematical models and software to help communities better plan for emergencies, a project inspired by the chaos that occurred in the city of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

Dr. Simei Tong
Dr. Simei Tong

"Watching Katrina was shocking," said Dr. Simei Tong, associate professor of mathematics. "The city clearly failed to appropriately plan for a disaster. As I watched that situation, I knew I wanted to find ways to use applied mathematics to solve real problems. If we can help cities prepare for disasters, we can reduce the loss of life."

In the years since Hurricane Katrina, Tong and student researchers have worked with emergency management professionals in Dane and Clark counties to build mathematical models that will help them better respond to emergencies in their regions.

In Clark County, Tong and her students designed an evacuation plan for the city of Owen, a community that faces a significant threat of catastrophic flooding from a break in the dam at Sportsman Lake, Tong said. Trains that run through the community routinely carry chemicals, presenting an additional threat to residents, she said.

"We created a transportation model that will minimize the time it will take to evacuate the entire community should the dam break or there be a train derailment," Tong said, noting the program also would be helpful in other disaster situations such as chemical explosions or wildfires. "Planners must know how to best evacuate people to prevent loss of life."

The model considered factors such as number of households, number of buses that would be available in an emergency, the average time it takes to load a bus and the time it would take buses to drive to pre-identified shelters, said Mitch Phillipson, a junior mathematics and physics major from Chippewa Falls who is part of Tong's research team.

The model also can help determine the specific shelter that each household should be transported to and the most efficient route to get them there, Phillipson said.

"In the city of Owen, 638 households would need to be evacuated if there was a flood or train derailment," Tong said. "Our model found that if each available bus could hold 15 households, the entire community could be evacuated in 59 minutes."

Jennifer Lord-Kouraichi, Clark County emergency management director, said she was skeptical when Tong first suggested applying mathematics to help with emergency preparedness.

"This project has demonstrated to me that math does have more practical application than I ever expected," Lord-Kouraichi said. "It has helped us increase preparedness in our county."

In Dane County, floods have caused millions of dollars worth of damage to property, infrastructure and crops in recent years, Tong said.

Researchers created a model to help emergency planners in Dane County determine the minimal time and costs needed to distribute sandbags to areas that often flood, Tong said. Officials there deemed it more logical to focus on sandbag distribution than evacuation, she said.

The researchers' model provided sandbag distribution options that considered time and cost, Phillipson said.

This fall, the research team presented their prototype models at the Conference of Wisconsin Emergency Management Association in Madison.

"The reaction was overwhelmingly positive," Tong said. "Representatives from communities and agencies all over the state requested access to our software system."

Inspired by the response, Tong and her students are now working with computer science faculty and students to make the software more useful to a larger number of people.

Computer science chair Dr. Michael Wick and a student are working with Tong to add a Web-enabled interface to the system, Wick said. The interface will allow users to plan emergency responses using their standard Internet browser, he said.

"The addition of the computer science department has really put strength and energy into the project," Tong said. "They are helping to build a bridge from the mathematical model to a broader application that would make it practical for other communities to use it."

The research team hopes to make the program flexible enough that it will be useful in planning responses to a variety of disaster situations, Phillipson said.

"Everyone we've talked with is excited about it," Phillipson said. "If we can help communities better prepare for disasters, then we'll have met our goal."

Lord-Kouraichi said the project is an excellent example of how communities and universities can partner to improve the lives of Wisconsin residents.

"This project has demonstrated that partnering with universities can be beneficial to local government," Lord-Kouraichi said. "The level of talent that UW Eau Claire contributed to this project was remarkable. It is great to have this resource in west-central Wisconsin."

Phillipson will share the project results with about 5,000 mathematicians from throughout the world during an annual national mathematics meeting in January 2008 in California.

For more information, contact Dr. Simei Tong, associate professor of mathematics, at 715-836-3172 or tongs@uwec.edu.

-30-

JB

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