City tracks Irene with powerful software tool

With help of federally funded computer simulation, emergency management staff can monitor storm

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By Andrew Ryan
Globe Staff / August 27, 2011

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A computer simulation showed the devastating potential: Hurricane Irene delivers a direct hit to Boston and pushes sea water 2 miles inland, drowning Back Bay, the South End, and the flats of South Boston.

“Worst-case scenario,’’ said Stacey Schwartz, a data analyst for Boston’s office of emergency management.

Inside a squat brick building in Roxbury this week, Schwartz stared at four 22-inch computer monitors mounted on a single stand, each charting the potential impact of Hurricane Irene. Of those, one screen showed social media reports - Twitter feeds, Flickr photos - from people in Irene’s path. Another displayed the last storm track from the National Hurricane Center, while allowing Schwartz to change the hurricane’s course to gauge the impact on Boston.

“Do a shift to the right,’’ said Donald E. McGough, Boston’s director of emergency preparedness, instructing Schwartz to move the storm’s track 100 miles east. “I’m an optimist. Now it skirts the Cape.’’

For the first time, Boston’s emergency management team is preparing for a storm with Hurrevac, a federally funded computer program that does more than the weather soothsayers on the television news. It allows government officials to manipulate real-time data from the National Hurricane Center to determine how subtle changes in the path of a storm can have a big impact on the city of Boston. The software also includes evacuation estimates that will warn officials how long it will take residents to leave a coastal neighborhood, alerting officials to the timetable they will have to make a decision.

“You can graphically click ahead through each hour and see how far the tropical storm-force winds extend or what category a storm it will be,’’ said Paul Morey, hurricane program manager for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “It doesn’t make decisions for you, but it helps local governments make decisions.’’

First developed as a rudimentary computer program in that late 1980s, Hurrevac has been used for decades in hurricane-prone regions of the United States. The program, restricted to government use, now has 10,000 registered users from Maine to the Caribbean, Hawaii to Japan, said Michael Schuster, hurricane program manager for the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Previously, Boston relied on other government agencies to analyze data from Hurrevac, but the city recently sent Schwartz and other staffers for training to learn how to analyze the data.

In practical terms, the information can help the city allocate resources. For example, Boston has 53 emergency shelters scattered across the city, but many sit on low-lying landfills prone to flooding. The data from Hurrevac helped emergency planners to determine that as many as a dozen shelters may be unusable in the event of substantial storm surge. A Category 2 hurricane could push seawater as far inland as Melnea Cass Boulevard.

“What we are preparing for is very different than what we think will actually happen,’’ McGough said. “Never before have we had the ability to shift things around within that cone of uncertainty to fully understand different scenarios.’’

As the storm approaches, data will become more reliable. On Thursday, the program showed that Dorchester, Md., could get 9 inches of rain. As Irene approaches New England today, officials will get similar predictions for the Dorchester section of this city. It will allow them to gauge potential flooding in vulnerable spots like Morrissey Boulevard.

A second software application will allow city officials to monitor Twitter feeds, Flickr photographs, and YouTube videos as Hurricane Irene washes ashore. The program was made available free of charge by the California-based company ESRI. It pulls in social media feeds by geographic location from the path of the storm. Yesterday, it showed a Flickr photograph of an ominous sky above Emerald Isle, a town on a barrier island along the North Carolina coast.

Boston emergency management officials have already used similar programs to monitor social media feeds during large events, such as the Bruins’ Stanley Cup parade last June. But when Irene hits Massachusetts, it will get its first real test, providing immediate feedback to the city’s emergency operations bunker in Roxbury.

“It’s another helpful tool to get a pulse of what’s happening,’’ McGough said. “We all sit here and hope it’s going to be nothing and it’s all going to blow away. But we still have a responsibility to plan for all contingencies.’’

Ryan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAndrewRyan