Oct. 31, 1998 LOS ALAMOS, N.M. -- An earthquake rocks a large modern city, injuring hundreds of people, producing major structural damage, knocking out electrical power, breaking gas mains and causing an industrial plant to leak toxic chemicals.
Collapsed bridges and buildings prevent emergency vehicles from reaching the injured, attending to dozens of small fires before they become big ones and carrying supplies to hospitals and rescue workers.
How do emergency responders and city officials cope with the situation? How do they deploy resources where they are most needed? How can they prepare in advance for such disasters, and what can they do to recover from them?
Los Alamos National Laboratory researchers are working on a project to give city officials, regional planners, police and other agencies a tool to help them plan for and respond to disasters such as earthquakes.
The project, called the Urban Security Initiative, links a wide range of urban subsystems -- including transportation, energy distribution, weather, infrastructure damage, water distribution, ecosystems, economic activities, geology and demographics -- into an integrated system that takes advantage of the Lab's high-performance computing capability.
"The tools being developed through this project can be used to help deal with natural disasters, environmental problems, the threat of chemical or biological attacks, industrial accidents and other events," said geologist Grant Heiken, a member of the Urban Security Team.
The project, now operating for a second year with internal Lab funding, involves many scientific disciplines, huge amounts of data, dozens of computer programs and tricky interfaces, and numerous collaborations. Heiken likens it to a big jigsaw puzzle being assembled by different groups, with various sections emerging and then needing to be connected properly to make a complete picture.
The Los Alamos team is focusing on several major areas: air and water transportation pathways, earthquakes and infrastructure, recovery and re-growth, airborne toxic releases with traffic exposure, integrating the pieces of the project and geographic information systems to collect and organize data into common databases.
"We plan to link this information across all kinds of (computer) platforms," said computer scientist Denise George. "Our hope is that it will allow those responsible for dealing with an emergency to click a button and find out just what is damaged and threatened, where the resources for responding are located and how to get them deployed."
In addition to improving the ability to respond to an emergency, the project is designed to help prepare for catastrophic events more effectively.
"In order for a user community to know how to deal with the immediate aftermath of an earthquake, it would be very helpful to conduct training simulations," said astrophysicist Eric Jones. "People also want to find out where to locate their resources before a disaster happens to provide the most effective response."
One of the team's collaborations is with the Southern California Earthquake Center and other California agencies on a project to link computer models of seismic ground motion, earthquake damage predictions and the infrastructure of the city of Los Angeles in order to enhance pre-event planning and emergency response efforts.
Current activities as part of this collaboration include modeling the effects of a major earthquake on infrastructure in the Los Angeles area. A database containing information about local geology, ground motion from shock waves, vulnerabilities of the infrastructure and other factors will be linked with computer models such as those for damage assessment, infrastructure operations during emergencies and longer-term recovery.
The project team has already reported useful findings. For instance, it found that a gas plume travels farther in the presence of buildings. The reason, said atmospheric scientist Mike Brown, is that turbulence caused by the buildings lifts the plume higher in the air, allowing it to be carried by stronger winds aloft.
This finding is important to the nonproliferation community, "which is interested in modeling flow around buildings because of possible terrorist attacks," Brown said.
In addition to collaborating on earthquake modeling in Southern California, the team is working with several federal agencies, other cities and several professional organizations. It initiated and is working with other organizations on a program to urge additional studies of urban systems, including seeking a declaration of the years 2001-2010 as the "Decade of Science in the Cities."
"Today, almost all the growth in the world is in the cities, and they are the most vulnerable places for natural or human-caused disasters," Heiken said. "Developing a science-based understanding of their vulnerabilities will help them survive."
Los Alamos National Laboratory is operated by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy.
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