Nov 12 2019
Public Safety

Virginia Cities Pool Resources with Military to Combat Flooding

Five Hampton Roads municipalities collaborate with bases on critical infrastructure protection.

The Hampton Roads region in Virginia has become the epicenter of East Coast military activity. It has a huge Navy presence and hosts major Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Coast Guard facilities.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Hampton Roads experienced the highest rates of sea level rise along the entire Atlantic Seaboard and now rates second only to New Orleans as the largest U.S. population center at risk of flooding. Some 40 percent of the local economy comes from Defense Department spending, according to an economic analysis by Old Dominion University, and the sea level rise from climate change threatens almost all major military facilities in this region.

Researchers believe three feet of sea level rise here (estimated to take place by the end of the 21st century) would impact anywhere from 59,059 people to 176,124 people — equal to about 84 percent of Richmond’s population. Such a sea level rise would cause between 162 and 877 miles of roads to be inundated, either permanently or regularly, NOAA says.

Over the past several years, efforts have been well underway to study the impact of rising sea levels on the Hampton Roads region.

Ann C. Phillips, a retired U.S. Navy rear admiral and now special assistant to the Virginia governor for coastal adaptation and protection, oversaw the infrastructure working group of the 2014-2016 Intergovernmental Pilot Project. The IPP studied a government and community approach to rising sea levels in the region and offered recommendations and strategies for better preparedness.

Phillips says the IPP looked to set regional standards; ensure the support of a consortium of universities; understand which infrastructure has become both critical and vulnerable to rising waters; determine financing strategies and mechanisms; and establish a way to share, collect, evaluate and disseminate data. 

All of these efforts are underway in some form. Over the past couple of years, the Virginia communities of Chesapeake, Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk and Virginia Beach collaborated on a major data-sharing initiative, the Regional Common Operating Picture (COP) Project. A COP has become the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s core situational awareness capability for effective decision-making, rapid staff actions and appropriate mission execution.

Common Operating Picture Project Offers 4 Main Components

Michael Goldsmith, deputy city manager for the city of Norfolk, says that while five communities are piloting the project, all of the districts in the Hampton Roads region will adopt these concepts and technologies in the next couple of years. He says the COP Project promises to make it possible for the 17 communities and the Eastern Shore in the Hampton Roads region to develop a regional approach for responding to weather events, floods and emergencies. 

“We also want to develop a more effective way to plan where we will build housing, municipal buildings and military facilities in the future,” Goldsmith explains.

There are four main components to the COP for Hampton Roads: A GIS overlay, standard communications protocols (including voice, IP and satellite), a set of standards for drones, and a common framework for data exchange

Goldsmith says the group has made the most progress on the GIS overlay and a set of standards for drones. In fact, the pilot group recently ran a test of the GIS overlay that focused on which emergency operations centers were open, whether schools were open or closed and whether the community declared an emergency.

“What’s important to understand is that in emergency situations, we could spend up to an hour just discussing on the phone these three items,” says Robert Geis, deputy city manager for the city of Chesapeake. “Moving forward, we’ll have basic information such as if emergency centers are open or closed, the status of the schools and whether an emergency has been declared. When we start with that information up front, we can then move directly to what the city needs and which locations need to be serviced.”

Erin Sutton, emergency manager for Virginia Beach, Va., says the city has been using a helicopter and drones to evaluate flood damage as far back as 2016, following Hurricane Matthew, as well as for a tornado in 2017. Sutton, who serves as chair of a regional drone working group, says the group meets quarterly to develop standards that will guide how drones interact with the region’s 19 military installations and two airports. 

“We share best practices and work with the Federal Aviation Administration locally as well as with the military air traffic controllers,” she says.

READ MORE ON FEDTECH: For Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience Month, StateTech and FedTech explore how agencies collaborate via technology to protect infrastructure.

Cloud-Based System Evaluates Water Level Data

Through the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at William & Mary college, the Hampton Roads region initiated StormSense, a system that evaluates water level data in the region.

Managed by Derek Loftis, an assistant research scientist at VIMS, the system runs over three cloud services: one that tracks sensor data across more than 60 sensors in the region, a second that takes the sensor data and creates maps and a cloud that issues reports on the data and shares it across the region’s communities. 

Loftis says for now, primarily Virginia Beach and Newport News use StormSense, but plans are in the works for StormSense to integrate with the IT systems of all the other Hampton Roads communities

Goldsmith says if it’s not StormSense, then the various communities will use something similar — a product that can evaluate water level data, map it and issue reports that communities can share across the region.

“The overall goal is to build a system that can push data to the Virginia Department of Emergency Management,” Goldsmith says. “And all of this data will run over the National Incident Management System run by the Department of Homeland Security.”

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