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Watching for Floods

This map shows the locations of 1,068 dam-break simulations launched on DSS-WISE Lite as of Sept. 10, 2013. / Photo Courtesy of Ole Miss Communications
This map shows the locations of 1,068 dam-break simulations launched on DSS-WISE Lite as of Sept. 10, 2013. / Photo Courtesy of Ole Miss Communications

Responding to natural disasters such as hurricanes Katrina and Sandy devastating the U.S. coasts, the University of Mississippi’s National Center for Computational Hydroscience and Engineering (NCCHE) may have found a new solution to saving lives, properties and businesses.

A small research team, composed of Mustafa Altinakar, director and research professor at NCCHE; Marcus McGrath, a graduate student; and Vijay Ramalingam, a research software developer, has created an innovative, Web-based, automated dam-break simulation system called DSS-WISE Lite for emergency planning in the event of floods, storm surges or dam and levee breaches.

DSS-WISE Lite was developed jointly with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). It employs state-of-the-art science and engineering methods to perform flood simulations while providing federal and state agencies the ability to address dam safety issues simply, flexibly, economically and efficiently.

Users can access DSS-WISE Lite 24/7 via the Dams Sector Analysis Tool (DSAT) Web portal, developed by the Office of Infrastructure Protection, DHS National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD), and the Office of Homeland Security, USACE headquarters.

DSS-WISE Lite is a special Web-based version of the DSS-WISE (Decision Support System for Water Infrastructure Security) software, which was developed within the framework of the Southeastern Region Research Initiative (SERRI) program funded by the DHS Science and Technology Directorate and managed by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

“This software answers the questions, ‘If a dam is breached, where [does] the water go, how deep [are] the flood waters, and at what time will the flood waters arrive at different locations of the inundation zone?’” Altinakar said. “Armed with this knowledge, emergency managers and first responders can proactively and more effectively plan what measures need to be taken, which areas must be warned and/or evacuated in case of a failure to protect lives and property.”

Altinakar added that “the Web-based DSS-WISE Lite software can also be used as a real-time operational model for emergency planning whenever a dam is in danger of failure, or for training dam safety engineers and emergency planners.”

The failure of dams and levees can generate catastrophic floods leading to the loss of life, property damage and environmental issues and may lead to cascading failures of other critical infrastructures. About 32 percent of the 84,000 dams currently registered in the National Inventory of Dams are categorized as “high-hazard” and “significant hazard” dams.

These dams are required to have an Emergency Action Plan (EAP), which is a formal document that identifies potential emergency conditions at a dam and specifies preplanned actions to be followed in order to minimize property damage or loss of life in the case of a dam failure. Precisely, DSS-WISE Lite capability can be used to create new EAPs or update existing EAPs based on a two-dimensional flood dam-break flood model, which can handle mixed-flow regimes and wetting and drying, and it constitutes significant improvement on the current engineering practice based on one-dimensional modeling. DSS-WISE Lite directly provides two-dimensional maps of maximum flood depth and flood arrival time. The DSAT/DSS-WISE Lite system is the first of its kind in the world.

“The recent adoption of the DSS-WISE model by the Department of Homeland Security, USACE and FEMA is not only a recognition of the center’s leading role in creating the nation’s disaster modeling and management tools but also a way to propagate the model for wider use by the U.S. and the international community for an even greater impact,” said Alexander Cheng, dean of the School of Engineering.

As of Sept. 10, 2013, 1,068 simulations have been submitted to DSS-WISE Lite by 56 users in 34 states. More simulations are being launched every day. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Region IV is currently pilot testing DSS-WISE Lite as its dam emergency management model for the 2013 hurricane season. If this pilot test is successful, the use of DSS-WISE Lite will be expanded to other FEMA regions. The development team at NCCHE has already used DSS-WISE Lite to help federal and state agencies during emergencies.

During Hurricane Isaac in 2012, NCCHE researchers were called to urgently assist FEMA Region IV and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) by providing inundation maps for two dams in imminent danger of failure. More recently, during extreme floods in May 2013, DSS-WISE Lite capability was used to provide inundation maps for four dams in danger of failure in order to assist dam safety engineers in North Dakota.

“The SERRI program is proud to have sponsored research at UM-NCCHE leading to the development of DSS-WISE Lite,” said Benjamin Thomas, operations manager for SERRI at ORNL. “The tool is a unique Web-based capability that is being used (free of charge at present) by numerous state agencies to support a variety of applications relative to flood risks due to dam failure. The DSS-WISE Lite tool has been validated and provides a significant cost savings for dam safety, flood management and emergency operational activities.”

Having coordinated the original DSS-WISE project since its start, Thomas said, “The research conducted by UM-NCCHE and leading to the development of DSS-WISE has been an impactful and successful SERRI project. Flooding caused by dam failures is an imminent and persistent societal threat. DSS-WISE offers the capability to model and simulate the risks of this threat to local and regional communities, critical infrastructure, properties and to the population. Using this information, officials can make better decisions during emergency planning, mitigation and response operations to help make communities and regions more resilient.”

Michael Matthews, who served as program manager of SERRI for the DHS Science and Technology Directorate, said that the DSS-WISE Lite project is the outcome of a successful strong partnership across several federal agencies to bring this concept to reality, which included DHS S&T, DHS NPPD, USACE and Argonne National Laboratory.

“I believe this goes to show that the combined strength of several federal agencies working together can be very powerful,” Matthews said.

“Our team is now working on adding new capabilities to DSS-WISE Lite, and we are preparing for the commercialization of the original DSS-WISE software,” Altinakar said.

NCCHE researchers are also upgrading an operational flood model they had developed as a computer game within the framework of another SERRI project. This software tool uses a GPU (Graphics Programming Units) based fast solver to simulate and realistically visualize dam-break floods in real time.

This serious gaming capability will advance the capabilities of emergency managers in preparing for, mitigating, and responding to flood emergencies in the aftermath of a dam/levee breach while providing a new paradigm for flood protection training for first responders.

Misty Cowherd, Ole Miss News Desk

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