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Area Vulnerable to Flooding Uses Census Data For Emergency Planning

Emergency Preparedness

Area Vulnerable to Flooding Uses Census Data For Emergency Planning

Emergency Preparedness

Population Numbers Help Virginia Cities Plan Evacuation Routes

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Until the 2017 hurricane season arrived, emergency managers in Virginia's Hampton Roads area — one of the nation’s most vulnerable to coastal flooding — struggled to get residents to create their own emergency plans.

Then, hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria arrived and battered island and coastal areas in other parts of the country with ferocious force. The threat could no longer be ignored, heightening awareness in many parts of the country prone to flooding.

“This hurricane season has been an opportunity to explain what it is we do,” said Jim Redick, Norfolk’s Director of Emergency Management. “While emergency management is a department, the emergency management system is all of us, including the public.”

The Hampton Roads area in southeast Virginia faces flooding threats to its low-lying coastal areas due to tropical storms and hurricanes. This large urban region is also vulnerable to flooding from high tides known as “King Tides,” which most often come during full-moon cycles late in the year.

The Hampton Roads Metropolitan Statistical Area, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, is home to 1.7 million people. Like other coastal areas across the country, it continues to see its population increase. Hampton Roads is made up of 14 Virginia counties, or county equivalents, and two counties along North Carolina’s Outer Banks. It has a large military presence, large commercial shipyards and several large health-care complexes.

Coordinating among these various jurisdictions is handled by the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission (HRPDC) Office of Emergency Management, which meets monthly to review plans and evaluate threats. 

Regional emergency managers use Census Bureau data to track population growth, identify vulnerable communities, analyze how commutes impact evacuation routes, and study characteristics and growth in housing units. 

Detailed demographic data available at granular geographic levels from the annually-updated American Community Survey (ACS) ensure that emergency plans reflect changing community dynamics. Besides tracking population growth, indicators such as age, disability, poverty status, age of householders and the number of cars per household identify which residents may have the hardest time evacuating.

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“Without Census Bureau data, it would be impossible to predict who we need to help,” said George Glazner, Deputy Coordinator of Emergency Management in Newport News. “It would be primitive compared to what we have.”

Redick agrees.

 “Each year we have updated basic emergency operation plans with more accurate information, which helps detail what our community looks like whether it’s age, disability or homeownership,” Redick said. “It really gives us a better idea of how to plan for evacuation and emergency scenarios.”

The Know Your Zone website hosted by the Virginia Office of Emergency Management features a dynamic map that identifies evacuation zones for residents living in Hampton Roads. The initiative helps residents familiarize themselves with escape routes before disaster strikes. Because of the region’s unique geography, getting to higher ground is complicated by the area’s various waterways and relatively few bridges and tunnels.  

“There’s limited egress for evacuation and limited access when it comes to getting help into here,” Glazner said. “Educating people on who needs to evacuate and not getting an over-evacuation is part of the challenge.”  

Evacuating motorists who make it to Newport News frequently keep going north and west to seek safety, he said. There are times, though, when evacuation traffic is too bottlenecked to get people further out, forcing city officials to set up ad hoc emergency shelters. 

The city of Norfolk faces similar challenges. In emergencies, it scrambles to put together emergency shelters for motorists trapped in evacuation traffic.

When disaster strikes and expediency matters, accurate demographic and housing data give emergency responders the picture they need to quickly identify which clusters of their community need the most help. 

While most emergencies require rapid action, rising sea levels are a longer-term threat. The eventuality of rising seas is forcing some Hampton Roads cities to rethink where they build. The city of Norfolk and other jurisdictions on the southern part of the region analyze Census Bureau demographic and housing data, overlaying them with topographical mapping data to identify which parts of their cities are most vulnerable.

In a move to slow residential settlement and discourage future population growth in those areas, Steve Pyle, Deputy Emergency Management Coordinator for Norfolk said the city is purchasing properties in areas where sea level rise is most likely to occur. To be more resilient to future flooding from sea level rise, the city has planned to build floodwalls, berms and tidegates, and raising roadways. Most of these projects are contingent on federal funding. 

Many residents, Pyle said, are not waiting for the city or the federal government to step in. 

“There are a few areas now where you’ll see ‘For Sale’ signs that are directly related to flooding,” Pyle said. “People are becoming smarter and better understanding their risk of living in these areas.”

Although Newport News is on relatively higher ground to the north and  beyond the tunnels and bridges that are most prone to gridlock, the city still faces the threat of  flooding. Ben Scott, the city’s IT Manager, uses GIS technology to help him pinpoint trouble spots.

“Newport News is 26 miles long,” Scott said. “We can have hurricane or tropical storms come through that dump 60 inches of rain in the south side but only 8 inches to the north.”

Areas most vulnerable to flooding in Newport News are also among the most economically challenged, said Jay Bowden, an emergency planner for the city. Because the city’s demographic and socio-economic profiles tend to be as diverse as its topography, Mapping the most vulnerable areas helps recovery efforts because lower-income areas tend to be disproportionally vulnerable to flooding and are slower to rebound. 

“What we do with a lot of Census demographic data is to paint the picture of how many houses are destroyed, how many are damaged, and whether this happened in a disadvantaged neighborhood,” Bowden said. “When we turn these reports into the state for recovery purposes, we’re telling them how resilient we think these communities are going to be, based on the data.”


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Nesreen Khashan is a Data Dissemination Specialist at the Census Bureau.


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