Technology benefits emergency operations

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 19, 2002


Thanks to technological innovations inside organizations like the National Weather Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, local coordinators of emergency operations in the River Parishes foresee great strides in their capabilities to keep the public informed about the severity and direction of storms that threaten the area every summer.

“The Internet has played a fantastic role in sharing research data,” said Tab Troxler, who is the director of Emergency Operations in St. Charles Parish. “Just from all the data being compiled, forecasting will get a lot better in the next 8-10 years,”

Troxler said NOAA can use the data to build models – called hindcasting – which track a storm’s progress, strength and speed. Which they can then use technology to immediately communicate to regions that are in danger. In addition to historical data, Troxler said the National Hurricane Center branch of NOAA uses reconnaissance aircraft to fly over storms and drop devices called “Dropsondes” on the perimeters of the storms to determine their movement.

Paul Oncale, who heads up the Civil Defense Department for St. John the Baptist Parish, said these technological advance will allow the NWS to begin giving evacuation warnings 120 hours in advance, rather than the current 72. Any extra time that can be provided to people as they prepare to evacuate is essential, said Oncale.

Oncale’s deputy director, Kathryn Gilmore, said software packages have been combined, allowing them to integrate a number of functions. Called HURRVAC, for hurricane evacuation, the software allows the emergency coordinators to forecast and track the movements of a storm and now can also perform the task previously done by SLOSH (Sea-Lake-Overland-Surge-Heights) – which models storms for speed, and predictions of height and volume of water from storm surges. Gilmore said innovations like this will allow the parishes to warn residents about possibly being in the path of tornadoes created by the storm, which typically spawn in the right front quadrant.

“We’re not using wall boards and grease pencils anymore,” said Gilmore.

The state will also contraflow traffic planning on evacuation routes for the burgeoning population.

Gerald Falgoust, the emergency operations director for St. James Parish, co-chaired the transportation subcommittee of the Southeast Louisiana Task Force for a number of years.

In addition to the current plan that changes all lanes on both sides of Interstate 10 into a westbound highway should evacuation procedures call for it, Falgoust said they are also working with the state of Mississippi to do the same thing along Interstate 55.

“We’re also trying to raise the level of the highway in Ponchatoula before this coming season,” said Falgoust. Which is just one of about 13 projects they are working on with the Louisiana State Department of Transportation and Development over the next few years.

Which also includes the creation of a four lane highway between Houma and Thibodaux, and the expansion of Louisiana Highway 3127 to four lanes from Ascension Parish into Baton Rouge.

“This would decrease the volume of traffic having to come over from the West Bank in New Orleans and Baton Rouge,” said Falgoust.

Troxler said he also expects state highways, like Louisiana Highway 61 to become “smart highways,” where traffic lights are synchronized up on long stretches of highway to maintain a steady flow of traffic.

There will also be better information about accidents, traffic jams and constructions for the passengers as they try to evacuate.

All the officials urged residents to take any warnings of evacuation seriously.

“We didn’t get the killer part of Betsy, we got the miserable part,” said Troxler in reference to the 1965 Hurricane that stands as the most devastating in most people’s memory. “You can’t look back in your own lifetime to gauge the threat of a hurricane. There’s no doubt in my mind we’re going to be threatened more often in the future.”

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a month-long series of stories dealing with weather-related disasters, specifically hurricanes. The series began on June 1, the beginning of the 2002 hurricane season.