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Helping Cities Cope With Disaster

October 31, 1998
Los Alamos National Laboratory
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.

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 anindustrial plant to leak toxic chemicals.

Collapsed bridges and buildings prevent emergency vehicles fromreaching the injured, attending to dozens of small fires beforethey become big ones and carrying supplies to hospitals andrescue workers.

How do emergency responders and city officials cope with thesituation? How do they deploy resources where they are mostneeded? How can they prepare in advance for such disasters, andwhat can they do to recover from them?

Los Alamos National Laboratory researchers are working on aproject to give city officials, regional planners, police andother agencies a tool to help them plan for and respond todisasters such as earthquakes.

The project, called the Urban Security Initiative, links a widerange of urban subsystems -- including transportation, energydistribution, weather, infrastructure damage, waterdistribution, ecosystems, economic activities, geology anddemographics -- into an integrated system that takes advantageof the Lab's high-performance computing capability.

"The tools being developed through this project can be used tohelp deal with natural disasters, environmental problems, thethreat of chemical or biological attacks, industrial accidentsand other events," said geologist Grant Heiken, a member of theUrban Security Team.

The project, now operating for a second year with internal Labfunding, involves many scientific disciplines, huge amounts ofdata, dozens of computer programs and tricky interfaces, andnumerous collaborations. Heiken likens it to a big jigsaw puzzlebeing assembled by different groups, with various sectionsemerging and then needing to be connected properly to make acomplete picture.

The Los Alamos team is focusing on several major areas: air andwater transportation pathways, earthquakes and infrastructure,recovery and re-growth, airborne toxic releases with trafficexposure, integrating the pieces of the project and geographicinformation systems to collect and organize data into commondatabases.

"We plan to link this information across all kinds of (computer)platforms," said computer scientist Denise George. "Our hope isthat it will allow those responsible for dealing with anemergency to click a button and find out just what is damagedand threatened, where the resources for responding are locatedand 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 eventsmore effectively.

"In order for a user community to know how to deal with theimmediate aftermath of an earthquake, it would be very helpfulto conduct training simulations," said astrophysicist EricJones. "People also want to find out where to locate theirresources before a disaster happens to provide the mosteffective response."

One of the team's collaborations is with the Southern CaliforniaEarthquake Center and other California agencies on a project tolink computer models of seismic ground motion, earthquake damagepredictions and the infrastructure of the city of Los Angeles inorder to enhance pre-event planning and emergency responseefforts.

Current activities as part of this collaboration includemodeling the effects of a major earthquake on infrastructure inthe Los Angeles area. A database containing information aboutlocal geology, ground motion from shock waves, vulnerabilitiesof the infrastructure and other factors will be linked withcomputer models such as those for damage assessment,infrastructure operations during emergencies and longer-termrecovery.

The project team has already reported useful findings. Forinstance, it found that a gas plume travels farther in thepresence of buildings. The reason, said atmospheric scientistMike Brown, is that turbulence caused by the buildings lifts theplume higher in the air, allowing it to be carried by strongerwinds aloft.

This finding is important to the nonproliferation community,"which is interested in modeling flow around buildings becauseof possible terrorist attacks," Brown said.

In addition to collaborating on earthquake modeling in SouthernCalifornia, the team is working with several federal agencies,other cities and several professional organizations. Itinitiated and is working with other organizations on a programto urge additional studies of urban systems, including seeking adeclaration of the years 2001-2010 as the "Decade of Science inthe Cities."

"Today, almost all the growth in the world is in the cities, andthey are the most vulnerable places for natural or human-causeddisasters," Heiken said. "Developing a science-basedunderstanding of their vulnerabilities will help them survive."

Los Alamos National Laboratory is operated by the University ofCalifornia for the U.S. Department of Energy.

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Los Alamos National Laboratory. "Helping Cities Cope With Disaster." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 31 October 1998. <>.
Los Alamos National Laboratory. (1998, October 31). Helping Cities Cope With Disaster. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 22, 2017 from
Los Alamos National Laboratory. "Helping Cities Cope With Disaster." ScienceDaily. (accessed May 22, 2017).