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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI researchers assess disaster preparedness of state’s transportation system

Media Contact: Todd McLeish, 401-874-7892

KINGSTON, R.I. – September 26, 2006 – When a natural or human-caused disaster strikes Rhode Island, the managers of the state’s transportation system have the key responsibility of rerouting traffic to evacuate residents and visitors, directing them to shelters and other resources, and ensuring that emergency personnel can reach the affected area.

Are they ready for the job? “Yes and no,” said Valerie Maier-Speredelozzi, assistant professor of industrial engineering at the University of Rhode Island. “The Department of Transportation, the Emergency Management Agency and the municipalities all have plans in place to address potential emergencies, but the key is coordinating those plans and making sure that they all know where the available resources are.”

Maier-Speredelozzi and several URI colleagues are conducting a study to assess the system and determine how best to respond to various kinds of disasters. The researchers will report on the status of their work and preliminary results at an international conference on transportation security and natural disasters at URI on Sept. 26.

The URI researchers – Valerie Maier-Speredelozzi, Jyh-Hone Wang, Charles Collyer, Natacha Thomas and graduate student Aaron Clark -- evaluated three different disaster scenarios: a hurricane, a bridge collapse, and a liquefied natural gas tank explosion, the latter of which represented a wide variety of potential chemical spills or explosions. Each scenario requires unique responses based on time (did the disaster occur suddenly or was there advance warming?) and location (was the affected area limited or statewide, heavily populated or not?).

One tool that transportation planners can use to direct traffic in disasters is variable message signs, the electronic signs installed at numerous high-traffic areas throughout the state.

“We’re trying to build a library of relevant messages that the DOT can easily call up to use on these signs,” Maier-Speredelozzi said.

According to the researchers, different phases of an emergency require very different messages. During early stages, signs might simply provide evacuation routes, while later messages could direct residents to shelters or locations where fresh water is available.

“These signs are effective because you can change the message as circumstances change,” said Maier-Speredelozzi. “Portable message signs can also be relocated wherever they are needed, but it is also important to ensure that portable signs do not become projectiles in a hurricane.”

Past research has even assessed the most effective way to present information on the signs, from identifying the best color and typeface to the use of graphics and flashing messages.

“There are a lot of issues involved to ensure that residents get the message about where to go and how to get there,” concluded Maier-Speredelozzi.