Natural disasters like hurricanes that make roads impassable pose a particular challenge for Trafficcast traffic operators tasked with reporting road closures. This autumn we have been challenged by two particularly different, and very difficult, hurricane events.
Slow-moving Hurricane Florence was September’s challenge, which dropped 36 inches of rain on the Carolinas early in the month. On September 10 and 11, evacuation orders were issued for residents in parts of North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia, clogging major highways with those obeying orders to flee. TrafficCast went into high gear, partnering with transportation officials in these states, adding extra staffing and coverage to provide the most accurate information about the implementation of contraflow – all lanes going in a single direction, that is – on I-26 away from Charleston, South Carolina, US-378, and US-501 away from Myrtle Beach.
TrafficCast offices in Wilmington, Delaware; Madison, Wisconsin and Shanghai pitched in to cover the thousands of local closures and eventual re-openings of Interstates 40 and 95 and other major roadways in the affected states.
In addition, we had access to live data through TrafficCast’s BlueTOAD units mounted throughout cities in North Carolina, which alerted us to the tremendous impacts of flooding and evacuation in real-time. We also had access to drone data during the extensive period of flooding following Florence, which was tremendously helpful in determining closure extents.
A month after Florence wreaked flooding havoc on the Carolinas, a different and much more powerful storm affected the Gulf Coast as fast-moving Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle on October 10. Michael left Panama City and Tallahassee crippled and other cities like Mexico Beach virtually obliterated, before quickly moving into Georgia and the Carolinas.
TrafficCast teamed up with Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina Department of Transportation officials before the Category 4 storm made landfall, gaining up-to-the-minute information and confirmation of road closures from these official sources. When I-10 was closed in both directions between Mobile and Tallahassee, along with US-98 closed along the coast, TrafficCast was closely monitoring the situation, as well as confirming the hundreds of local roads that closed in Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas due to the debris and deluge, so residents would know if and when they could access their neighborhoods.
Here’s what it was like from TrafficCast NOC operator Stephen Keller:
Covering hurricane Michael was an exhausting ordeal. The damage was extensive – Michael passed directly over a long stretch of I-10, leaving behind so much debris that the highway was impassable. Many state bridges that connect the (Florida) panhandle were ravaged by winds and rising water. And hundreds of local roads were blocked due to fallen trees and power lines. With so much to cover, we split our duties between several traffic operators: those most familiar with Florida markets took control of the major closures, while others focused on smaller roads. Hundreds of new records came in every hour, and many of them needed hands-on adjustments due to geo-coding issues or premature end times.
During natural disasters, state DOTs and highway patrol might be understandably overwhelmed and miss some coverage. In these situations, social media can be the quickest source of news. By constantly sifting through our media sources, we were able to manually add many closures that would have otherwise not gone into the system. Sometimes, all we had to go on was a photo of a blocked/flooded road, and we had to do some detective work on [Google Maps] street view to figure out exactly where it was taken. Other times, local news was able to report on dozens of closures that our main sources missed. These too, we manually added into our system.