Lincoln Laboratory staff deployed tools to help FEMA plan evacuations, monitor storms, and assess the damage wrought by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.
The Twin Otter aircraft, with the Laboratory's ladar system on board, prepares to take off for its mission in Texas. Photo: Glen Cooper.
The Twin Otter aircraft, with the Laboratory's ladar system on board, prepares to take off for its mission in Texas. Photo: Glen Cooper.

The 2017 hurricane season was catastrophic. Hurricane Harvey, plaguing Texas with floods, was followed quickly by Irma, whose winds battered Florida and the Caribbean. Hurricane Maria then raged upon Puerto Rico and other islands already reeling from previous storms. In the buildup and aftermath, Lincoln Laboratory quickly assembled teams and technology to aid federal agencies in managing these disasters. 

As Harvey approached Texas, Laboratory staff traveled to the National Response Coordination Center (NRCC) in Washington, D.C., to help the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other federal agencies prepare for landfall on 25 August. Personnel there were using a new Laboratory-developed hurricane evacuation decision platform called HURREVAC-eXtended (HV-X). The system incorporates hurricane forecasts, current weather conditions, and embedded data analytics in a simple user interface that enables emergency managers to evaluate evacuation scenarios and make recommendations to FEMA leadership.

The Laboratory began work on hurricane planning and evacuation tools in 2014 under funding from the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate (DHS S&T). The initial work to understand the technology gaps in the existing National Hurricane Program suite of hurricane tools led to the development of the HV-X prototype.

Although HV-X is still a prototype, Laboratory staff were able to maintain 24/7 operations of the system during the disasters. This enabled the NRCC and regional FEMA staff to visualize the storm forecast and impacts through their browser for anywhere, anytime operations. In addition, the DHS S&T investment enabled the visualization of other data analytics that provided situational awareness on business open/close status, off-shore precipitation, and power outages.

A color-coded map integrated into the HV-X interface shows estimated percentages of power outages as Hurricane Irma makes it way up the Florida peninsula. Photo courtesy of the researchers.
A color-coded map integrated into the HV-X interface shows estimated percentages of power outages as Hurricane Irma makes it way up the Florida peninsula. Photo courtesy of the researchers.

"HV-X is the first hurricane platform to include evacuation-zone-based impact assessments and unique tools for visualizing potential storm surge levels," said Robert Hallowell, a staff member in the Laboratory's Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) Systems Group who was stationed at the NRCC.

The HV-X developers were also able to tie in experimental products to the system. One such product was the Laboratory's Offshore Precipitation Capability, which provides radar-like visualizations of storm activity over parts of the ocean that are outside typical weather-radar range.

Another tool provided hourly visual updates of power outages. The power outage maps are the outcome of a new system that uses network data to infer the status of power infrastructure. The system works by first understanding which internet devices are active in an area of interest—in this case, the coastal areas in Texas and the entirety of Florida, Georgia, U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and other Caribbean islands—and calculating a pre-storm baseline response rate based on recent network analysis. 

As the hurricanes approached each region, the researchers began consistent scans of the same networks, examining thousands of IP addresses per zip code. "We were basically actively but lightly probing these known IP addresses over and over, asking, 'Are you there, are you there, are you there'," said Adam Norige, who developed the system with Kendra Kratkiewicz and other staff in the Cyber Analytics and Decision Systems Group. The researchers compared those response rates to the pre-storm baseline and determined an average percentage of normal activity per county. The results were then mapped on a color-scale, ranging from dark red for 0–10% normal activity to dark blue for networks operating as usual.

"For Hurricane Irma, every three hours we produced an updated map of Florida, Georgia, and Puerto Rico, with each county color-coded according to its percentage of normal activity," said Jonathan Pitts, leader of the HADR Systems Group. The near-real-time updates allowed FEMA to plan search-and-rescue missions sooner and to more quickly assess infrastructure damage. These assessments usually depend on residents reporting their power loss to utility companies or on other monitoring systems that often fail.

Wearing an oxygen mask inside the low-pressure cabin of the Twin Otter aircraft, Rajan Gurjar monitors the progress of the Laboratory's airborne ladar system. Photo: Brandon Call
Wearing an oxygen mask inside the low-pressure cabin of the Twin Otter aircraft, Rajan Gurjar monitors the progress of the Laboratory's airborne ladar system. Photo: Brandon Call

The Laboratory also helped FEMA with infrastructure assessment by producing wide-area 3D imagery of the Houston area. The 3D images were captured by a laser radar (ladar) platform called the Airborne Optical Systems Test Bed (AOSTB), integrated onto a Twin Otter aircraft. The AOSTB system, which was built using spare components from previous ladars that have since transitioned out of the Laboratory, was made to give the Laboratory a resident ladar for conducting research. Several months ago, staff had used the AOSTB system during a mock-disaster training exercise. A real deployment for this application came sooner than anticipated.

The decision to use the system was made quickly once the breadth of Harvey's devastation became clear. Staff from the Laboratory's Flight Test Facility hurried to fly in an available Twin Otter aircraft from Colorado and prepare it for integrating the platform, while dozens from the Active Optical Systems Group rushed to resurrect the ladar. "What the team accomplished was truly amazing and sets a record for getting the system moved from the lab, integrated on the plane, and ground tested within a day," said Jalal Khan, leader of the Active Optical Systems Group. After two days of transport to Texas, and additional integration and testing there, the system was ready to go.  

A team stationed in College Station, Texas, led by Rajan Gurjar, conducted daily flight missions for two weeks beginning on September 12. Data were collected over several sites identified as priority regions by FEMA, who interfaced with another team of Laboratory staff, led by John Aldridge, at FEMA's Joint Field Office set up in Austin. FEMA's initial priority was to use the data to locate and estimate the size of debris piles on roads and sidewalks. These debris maps would help FEMA prioritize and coordinate cleanup efforts.

On the left is an Airborne Optical Systems Test Bed 3D ladar image of a Houston suburb. The processed image on the right shows a zoomed-in view, with the houses, foliage, road, and background elements filtered out to reveal piles of debris.
On the left is an Airborne Optical Systems Test Bed 3D ladar image of a Houston suburb. The processed image on the right shows a zoomed-in view, with the houses, foliage, road, and background elements filtered out to reveal piles of debris.

The data were collected in two modes. First, the system scanned in wide-area mode, which allowed for quickly imaging large areas but at a low resolution. Within those areas, the team also scanned smaller swaths in targeted mode, which provided high-resolution data more suited for debris estimating. The data captured during the flights were then sent to the processing team at the Laboratory, where it was filtered and enhanced so that the analysts could study the ladar imagery by eye and begin approximating the locations and volume estimates of debris piles. Simultaneously, staff developed algorithms to automate this process to produce these maps without analyst intervention.

The initial results showed that debris volume estimates deduced from the ladar images were consistent with those made by the Army Corps of Engineers, who are tasked post-disaster with walking the streets to compile these numbers. The technology is proving that it can accomplish the same task from an altitude of 11,000 feet. The results were received enthusiastically by FEMA. 

Francesca Lettang, who flew on all missions as the onboard operator, prepares for a ladar mission at the airfield in College Station, Texas. Photo: Kenneth Schultz
Francesca Lettang, who flew on all missions as the onboard operator, prepares for a ladar mission at the airfield in College Station, Texas. Photo: Kenneth Schultz

Staff have also been supporting the FEMA Individual Disaster Division in its work to aid hurricane victims. One tool the Laboratory provided was a prototype web app for FEMA's Mass Care Group. The app's algorithms predict shelter and food requirements. "The Mass Care Group shared these numbers with the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and Southern Baptist Convention, who provide the sheltering and feeding supplies. These organizations could then input the supply numbers to evaluate mismatches between supply and demand," said Hayley Reynolds, staff member in the HADR Systems Group. Additionally, the Laboratory is leading a study to evaluate FEMA's disaster housing-provision process, with the goal of innovating new ways of providing housing that enable survivors to be served more quickly after an event. The observations the team took from these hurricane responses will inform that study.

Beyond supplying hardware and data products, the Laboratory also served as an advisor to DHS. Staff stationed at the DHS National Infrastructure Coordinating Center studied the center's workflow for ingesting data and producing reports to suggest improvements. They also shared knowledge of Laboratory assets that could be useful in future disaster-response scenarios.

Alex Vasile works on processing initial data, while Brandon Call, from the business 3DEO which specializes in lidar technology,assists with integrating the system. Rajan Gurjar (right), is putting together plans for a local flight test. Photo: Glen Cooper
Alex Vasile processes initial data, while Brandon Call, from the business 3DEO which specializes in lidar technology, assists with integrating the system. Rajan Gurjar (right), is putting together plans for a local flight test. Photo: Glen Cooper

Although the hurricane season is over, collaboration is likely to continue. Staff are considering ways to use the power outage maps of Puerto Rico—which show, amongst the predominantly dark red counties, pockets of blue—as a tool to identify communication hotspots and aid power restoration. Laboratory staff were also part of a disaster-response team that installed an off-grid, solar-powered water purification system in Loiza, Puerto Rico.  A follow-on to this effort will be the joint development of a water system that can support 4,000 people per day, four times more than the current system.

Ultimately, much of this work may shape the way federal agencies plan for and respond to similar events. But for now, the experience has shown how quickly the Laboratory can mobilize staff and technology when disaster strikes. "What we've learned is how agile the Laboratory is for responding to disasters like this. But we've also learned how enthusiastic everyone here is to help at the drop of a hat," said Melissa Choi, head of the Homeland Protection and Air Traffic Control Division. "It's been remarkable to see how we are able to come together and respond as a unified team."