September 12, 2017 11:56 am
Updated: September 15, 2017 10:10 am

Halifax researchers using Hurricane Harvey, Irma as they work to understand mass evacuations

Two Halifax professors are working to try and understand the what-if scenarios of evacuation if a hurricane or other natural disaster was to strike Halifax. Natasha Pace reports.


Researchers in Halifax are looking at Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma as they continue work to better understand mass evacuations.

“It’s giving us some first-hand experience,” said Dr. Ahsan Habib,  a transportation professor at Dalhousie University.

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Habib is working to try and understand the what-if scenarios of evacuation if a hurricane or other natural disaster was to strike Halifax.

READ: Halifax professor wins Canada’s top science prize for battery research

‘We cannot plan it when it’s happening’

Part of Habib’s work involves developing traffic simulation models, which are used to determine how long it will take to evacuate certain areas, identify traffic issues and what countermeasures could be put in place.

“We are trying to learn through simulation modeling what type of things may happen in these type of scenarios in Halifax, in particular Halifax peninsular,” said Habib.

“We cannot plan it when it’s happening right? Disaster management planning or disaster modeling is a little bit different because we have to anticipate. We cannot wait for things to happen and then respond.”

Habib says he’s been closely watching recent disasters in both Texas and Florida to see what type of situations Halifax should be simulating and what issues may have not been anticipated.

That includes how a gas shortage could potentially impact a mass evacuation.

READ: ‘How are we going to survive here?’ Florida residents assess damage after Irma’s destruction

Simulation shows it would take 15 hours to evacuate peninsula 

One of the traffic models that Habib has created is considered a worst-case scenario and determined that it would take hours to get roughly 35,000 vehicles off the Halifax peninsula if there was an emergency and an evacuation was required.

“If we have a mass evacuation mandatory order at 10 a.m., when all the commuters are in the peninsula, we found that we need at least 15 hours to evacuate the entire peninsula. Assuming that there’s no incident, assuming that there’s no blockage or unintended or unforeseen traffic conditions,” said Habib.

“It’s a big number. There’s no doubt about it.”

Habib says he is hopeful that they can improve evacuation times by using different types of countermeasures in further simulation models as their research continues.

READ: What homeowners can do if they’re hit with major flooding

Halifax has few exit points, could cause panic 

Through his research, one of the things Habib has identified is that there are only a few enter and exit points on the Halifax peninsula.

“It’s very difficult for a historical town with narrow roads and these bottle necks to evacuate very efficiently, so we have to think through and learn more as we go,” he said.

WATCH: Mandatory evacuations as millions flee hurricane Irma

Dr. Kevin Quigley, a Dalhousie professor and director of the MacEachen Institute for Public Policy & Governance is also researching the topic.

He has been working alongside a psychologist to understand how people may respond to emergencies in the Halifax area.

“One of the interesting things about the peninsula is because there are so few points of exit, it causes panic,” said Quigley.

“A lot of other dangerous scenarios people don’t actually panic (…)  But when you have few exit points, it can generate a little bit more panic.”

READ MORE: Hurricane Harvey: Coast Guard, EPA cleaning up a dozen chemical spills

Vulnerable populations and evacuations

Right now, researchers are two years into a five-year project.

Part of Quigley’s work is looking at how emergency managers deal with vulnerable populations during an evacuation.

“Vulnerable populations are always something that come up after an evacuation. So, it’s not so much the general population and how you’re gonna get 80 per cent or 90 per cent off the island so to speak. It’s the 10 ten per cent,” said Quigley.

WATCH: British Columbia’s Elephant Hill wildfire forces prompts evacuations

“When you have an elderly population, people in hospitals or seniors residences, that’s just simply a long, logistical operation to get those people out of those buildings and off the peninsula. So they may actually be better off sheltering in place in a lot of cases.”

Since more people choosing to stay in their homes longer nowadays, Quigley says that’s another element that needs to be looked at if there was a large-scale evacuation.

“The question then is not simply evacuating people in hospitals and seniors residences but also where are the other vulnerable populations? How are we engaging with those folks who are still at home? Do we know where they are? Do we know what they need?”

READ MORE: Florida looters taking advantage of Hurricane Irma evacuations, several arrested

Next phase of research looking at ‘ethical consideration’ during evacuations

Quigly says the next phase of his work on the project will be about the ethical consideration surrounding evacuations, since officials are trying to make difficult decisions in a limited amount of time and with limited resources.

“You have to make tough choices about who you’re going to help and so we want to introduce that kind of complexity also to get emergency managers to think about how to think about ethical dilemmas.”

Once the research by Habib and Quigley is complete, the goal is to use it to develop training tools for emergency personnel so they are better prepared.

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