NARRAGANSET — Widely recognized for developing computer models that predict the intensities of tropical storms and hurricanes, University of Rhode Island oceanography professor Isaac Ginis is now developing new models for the Department of Homeland Security that predict the impacts of storms on Southern New England infrastructure.
“The Department of Homeland Security just extended our project for the sixth year, which is really unprecedented, at least from my experience,” he said.
The work of Ginis’ team of scientists and graduate students has attracted national attention for its timely and practical goal of developing tools for emergency management directors that help them prepare for and respond to severe weather, including hurricanes.
Storms are presenting a new threat in addition to coastal flooding from storm surge. A growing concern, Ginis said, is inland flooding from storms that stall when they reach land, dumping several feet of rain.
“There is a tendency of storms to slow down after landfall,” he said. “So that is a clear indication that something is changing in terms of the translation speed, how fast the storm moves. We don’t know the reason. It could be related to climate change, but the link is not well established. But it’s clear that the data indicates that now, we have now a new type of threat that we need to consider.”
New threat, new tools
In addition to preparing for coastal storm damage, emergency managers should now prepare for damage to structures inland.
“We need to prepare for storms that would slow down,” Ginis said. “This is is what we are focusing on now in terms of our modeling, is to develop hurricane scenarios for emergency managers that they could use for training exercises.”
Following hypothetical hurricane “Rhody” developed several years ago, Ginis’ team has produced a second simulated hurricane they named “Ram.” Unlike fast-moving Rhody, Ram simulates storms that slow down over land and also estimates rainfall amounts.
“What is new here is the storm slows down over Rhode Island and spends about 24 hours over the state, producing as much as 19 inches of rain,” Ginis said.
Criss-crossed by short, shallow rivers, Rhode Island is particularly vulnerable to flooding when those rivers overflow their banks.
“Those rivers can fill up rather quickly and produce a significant river flooding,” Ginis said.
In order to pinpoint which installations might be impacted by storms, Ginis’ team took an existing storm-surge modeling system called “ADvanced CIRCulation,” or ADCIRC, which is currently used by federal agencies, and improved the resolution to show individual structures. The objective is to predict the impact of flooding and wind on buildings and facilities.
Working with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, the Department of Health, and the Department of Transportation, the team has developed a “consequence threshold” model, showing the point at which a structure or piece of equipment has been damaged so it no longer functions.
“The idea is to understand what is the impact on particular facilities or infrastructure from flooding, wind speed, that would essentially stop the facilities from operating,” Ginis said. “Think about if a generator on a hospital stops operating. That essentially will affect the operations of the facility.
The Westerly study
Westerly was the site of a 2018 pilot study to determine the consequence thresholds of a municipality's infrastructure. The town was recommended for the study by the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency because of the relatively small number of critical facilities and its vulnerability to storm damage.
“This blue pin,” Ginis said, pointing to a marker on a map of Westerly, “that’s an antenna in the fire department. The fire chief told us that ‘if the wind speed exceeds 70 miles per hour, our fire department loses our voice radio antenna. We cannot dispatch.’”
For road flooding, the threshold is eight inches of water.
“We are told by the Department of Transportation that if the water exceeds eight inches, then an emergency vehicle would not be able to pass,” Ginis said. “The idea is this: We will make this prediction in advance of the storm, before the storm makes landfall, so emergency managers would see not only flooding and wind as they get typically from the prediction models, but they would also see which facilities, when and where, will be affected.”
A second project team, led by URI professor Austin Becker, interviewed 13 Westerly facilities managers, who provided the thresholds at which their facilities would stop operating.
That data was combined with the flooding hazard prediction model to produce a map that refreshes every 30 minutes, showing the facilities and their thresholds in close detail.
“Who cares if this generator goes out or that antenna goes out, because the problem is not that the antenna goes out, the problem is, then you don’t have communications with emergency response teams,” Becker said. “So we’re collecting the expertise of those local facility managers and we’re bringing that into a database and then, using the XY coordinates for those specific assets, we’re able to run Isaac’s storm model and when that particular asset is predicted to have a certain amount of flooding or a certain amount of wind, that’s going to flag those consequences that were identified by those facility managers so that other members of the emergency management community can be alerted.”
The project will expand in the next year to include an online tool, or dashboard, that emergency officials will be able to use to see which facilities will be impacted by a storm.
“It’s not that complicated, really, but nobody’s ever done it before, and the feedback that we’re getting from the emergency management community is this is going to be super, super useful,” Becker said.
Navy takes an interest
The City of Newport has received a “Community Economic Adjustment Assistance for Responding to Threats to the Resilience of a Military Installation Award” from the Department of Defense to develop measures for protecting the critical infrastructure of Naval Station Newport and nearby municipalities. The project will implement the Ginis team’s latest high-resolution storm prediction models as well as the new consequence thresholds.
URI Associate Coastal Manager Pamela Rubinoff is overseeing the initiative and forming the committees that will direct the work. Rubinoff noted that the naval station is largely dependent on municipal services.
“They rely on many of the municipal infrastructure, whether it be directly, for water or for wastewater that’s coming into the base or for the roads that lead tp the base, so there’s a lot of resources that are critical to the Navy’s function, either on or adjacent to the installation,” she said.
The project will assess the resilience of Naval installations to storm surge and sea-level rise.
“This is an opportunity for us to come up to speed, just like Newport News, Virginia, has, and some of the other installations have been doing to not only identify what the vulnerabilities are but to work with the stakeholders to really identify really what are some of the priority strategies for moving forward,” Rubinoff said.
The goal, Rubinoff said, is to improve storm preparation.
"The aim would be that you could then use it to understand six hours in advance what’s going to be coming but then also, I think one of the real benefits here is that we are using, not theoretical impacts,” she said. “We’re getting from the DPW director, we’re getting from the wastewater treatment facility manager, we’re getting from the person who’s running the blood bank or the hospital administrator what they think are the problems, so that you are able to capture information that, if they leave tomorrow, we already have in our database.”