New Era of Flood Prediction and Response Tools Revealed

New Era of Flood Prediction and Response Tools Revealed


City of Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox shares Tuscaloosa’s experience managing a large-scale disaster with the diverse task group.

What can happen when you get diverse academic disciplines and determined practitioners working together to solve big problems? You may well get some big answers.

Some exciting new flood-disaster management tools are now on the horizon and were unveiled this week kicking off the 2016 NOAA National Water Center Summer Institute. This innovative day demonstrated a new era of collaboration between first responders, academics, disaster specialists, and government agencies who are all determined to improve water-related emergency responses.

The Tuscaloosa County Emergency Management Agency, local first responders and other professionals, along with the NOAA National Water Center, the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Science, Inc. (CUAHSI) Summer Institute and the National Science Foundation, facilitated a first-of-its-kind, collaborative training and exercise day at the NOAA National Water Center on June 8.

The aim of the day was to introduce graduate students, post doctoral researchers, and faculty advisers that have assembled from around the nation to the realm of disaster response and emergency management. The resulting work group has been charged with refining these new tools for wider use this summer. This also provided a small preview into what will be possible through the new federal National Water Center (NWC) located in Tuscaloosa on the University of Alabama Campus.

The NWC  is a facility that focuses on research into water resources and high impact / high value forecasting, as well as developing cutting edge technologies to assist in emergency decision making. The consolidation of these efforts result in what is often referred to as Decision Support Services, where critical information often of a scientific nature with complex data elements, are distilled and delivered in a more concise format tailored to a decision maker’s needs. The center is the home of the 2016 Summer Institute where students from around the country will collaborate on research projects such as flood mapping, water resource management, flood forecasting, and emergency flood response. These projects will soon enhance the tools available to emergency management and first responders dealing with flood events. 

Dr. David Maidment of the University of Texas – Austin and  Tuscaloosa County EMA Director Rob Robertson emceed the day packed with presentations, discussion, interactions and collaboration between students and the first responders, public works, and disaster non-government organizations. This was also the first exercise-style event held at the National Water Center which opened in the summer of 2015. The group put the state-of-the-art Operation Center in the facility through its paces, utilizing a range of new technologies.

What makes the new maps and modeling tools different yet so challenging?

Presently most maps are static flood inundation maps that show where water could go. They may not adjust to reflect real-time behaviors of actual flood events or identify the specific address points within an area that are at highest risk and thereby illustrate priorities for rapid evacuation. Having real-time flood inundation maps that adapt to actual conditions seen means clearer priorities. Imagine trying to model how all the rainfall across the nation will flow once on the ground, calculating the timing and quantity accumulation at various points.  Then add in a range of big data sets and translate this into first-responder focused maps and warning systems… and do it fast, changing with the conditions. Advances in super computing and geospatial technologies now in place run these computations more rapidly when given the modeling schema. Advances in weather radar, satellite imaging, and  LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) can further enhance the accuracy of the terrain flow models.


Fixed-wing LiDAR flight example to accurately determine surface contour.

One can begin to see how this could change event management and even allow broadcast media weather professionals to communicate with new warning tools similar to how tornado warnings are presented to the public. 

Regarding the Summer Institute’s anticipated developments and their potential impact on communities, Director Robertson states, “We’re excited to be a part of helping develop these new tools to mange flood disasters with the dynamic, fast-paced technologies driving the world today. These tools could can help save lives and allow better coordinated responses when deployed to our first responders and emergency operations center around the country.”


Summer Institute students learning about disaster response tools from Fire and Red Cross professionals.

More information on the exciting work underway and the mission of the National Water Center can be seen in this report from KXAN in Austin, TX

The day began with a case-study presentation by Harry Evans, former Chief of Staff at the Austin Fire Department and a research fellow at the University of Texas, on a real world flooding disaster that occurred in South Central Texas in 2015. This flooding event prompted the need for simplified and relative, modular maps that could be distributed to first responders and emergency personnel prior to and during a flooding disaster. The latest iteration of the new map designs were presented by Christine Thies, Planning and Research Manager for the Austin Fire Department.

Students then received a crash course in emergency response from several perspectives – City of Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox spoke about leading communities during disasters. Tuscaloosa Fire and Rescue Service Deputy Chief Chris Williamson gave an overview of the Incident Command Structure (ICS) and National Incident Management System (NIMS), the standard frameworks used to organize disaster workflow. At a Lunch & Learn, students were given the opportunity to chat with Tuscaloosa County area first responders and see demonstrations of the emergency vehicles and specialized equipment that can be utilized during emergencies.


Tuscaloosa Fire and Rescue discuss the needs of first responders with participants during the exercise.

The flood exercise portion was conducted in the afternoon and focused on a fictional major flood event in Tuscaloosa County. Members of Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Office, University of Alabama Police Department, Tuscaloosa County Public Works, City of Tuscaloosa Engineering – Storm Water Division, Tuscaloosa Fire Rescue Service, Northport Fire, Alabama EMA, and West Alabama Red Cross led groups of students in discussions on what their roles would be in a real world situation. This also provided an opportunity for recently developed flood mapping tools to be used. 

Another tool unveiled was a levee breech modelling capability developed by Dr. Ahmad A. Tavakoly of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers Research and Development Center. The continued development of these tools will be a large focus of the summer institute and the NWC. The hope is these tools may well be ready for widespread testing and use in communities across the nation.

 “In my opinion, a truly world class event and a great privilege to participate in,” said Christopher Franklin, a doctoral candidate, geospatial specialist and demographer from the University of Texas – Dallas. 

Visiting the events of the day were staff representatives from U.S. Senator Richard Shelby and Rep. Terri Sewell’s office, National Weather Service in Birmingham and Washington, DC, NOAA Officials, Dr. Laura Myers of the Center for Advanced Public Safety at the University of Alabama, U.S Geological Survey and others interested parties of this vital effort.


UPDATE Friday June 10, 2016:  

To wrap up this kickoff week of the NWC Summer Institute, participants benefited from another information packed day hearing perspectives from a range of professionals including James Spann, ABC33/40 Broadcast Meteorologist,  Don Hartley, AEMA, Dr. Laura Myers, Center for Advanced Public Safety, and Leslie Durham, Alabama Flood Plain Manager.



Meteorologist James Spann Shares his Perspectives on Flood Warning Products.


James Spann Shares his Passion for Saving Lives with Students.


Students Dialog with Speakers throughout the Day.