Storm Response: Software Predicts Flooding, Power Outages

The automated system does in 15 minutes what once took four hours, and it's available to local governments for storm response.

Editor's Note: Updated September 28, 2017

Government software helps emergency responders predict where power outages are most likely to occur during large storms. The fully automated system, called VERDE (Visualizing Energy Resources Dynamically on Earth) by developers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), uses wind speed and location estimates to geospatially map the impact to the electric grid, allowing planners who would otherwise have to perform tedious manual processing to focus on other tasks.

VERDE can finish power outage analysis within 15 minutes of receiving weather advisory, and offers a viewing plaform for operational support missions, making useful to military and federal agency operations, as well as for state and local government agencies. It can be used by local agencies to predict flooding locations and even simulate power outage restoration simulations.

As hurricanes approach, forecasts about their paths and wind speeds are often fairly accurate up to two to three days before landfall. Analysts combine this data with knowledge concerning how vulnerable power lines are. For example, most transmission lines are designed to have a 50 percent chance of survival in sustained 65 mile per hour winds.

Emergency responders can then prepare where to focus their efforts,” said Steven Fernandez, lead of ORNL’s Critical Infrastructure and Climate Impacts Team.

The Need for Faster Predictions

Storms tend to change by the hour, so researchers want predictions that are as up to date as possible. The problem is that it can take analysts four hours to prepare each estimate based on a weather advisory, and hurricanes that hit the United States typically lead to more than 40 weather advisories, with advisories issued every two to three hours around the clock.

Hurricane Sandy alone led to 64 advisories.

Manually developing estimates often meant the results were too late to be of much use.

“Instead of relying on analysts, we developed software that fully automates the process of determining how storms might knock out power,” Fernandez said. Fernandez said the system takes weather models from the National Hurricane Center and flood information from the U.S. Geological Survey and combines them with national-level models of where power grid components are and where people associated with those grids are from ORNL’s LandScan population distribution system.

VERDE then calculates county by county what percentage of people might lose power, where they are and how long power will be out.

This feature is designed to help emergency responders get crews and supplies out to places that need power the most when big storms occur.

“After the software frees analysts up from this labor, those experts can now concentrate on what power utilities report back and other information from the ground during storms to refine estimates further,” Fernandez said.

VERDE is currently used by the Department of Homeland Security's Industrial Control Systems Cyber Emergency Response Team, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Northern Command’s Situational Awareness Geospatial Enterprise.

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