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USTAR-supported project hopes to prevent hurricane deaths

Hurricanes can be devastating and costly. With raging winds and storm surges, they can create floods, falling debris, and other weather-related hazards that are often deadly.

Florence—which recently tore through North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia—can be blamed for more than 40 deaths, and likely more than $20 billion in property damages.

However, University of Utah professor Mostafa Sahraei-Ardakani, Ph.D., hopes to mitigate some of the potential destruction of hurricanes through preventive power system operation technologies. His research team, which previously received a Utah Science Technology and Research Initiative (USTAR) grant, recently was awarded a $298,681 grant from the National Science Foundation to further explore and develop the technology.

“The idea behind this was we know that weather forecast data is available and that in power systems operations, they’re not making full use of the available data,” explained Ardakani. “We’re investigating if there is a way to integrate that data within power operations. The ultimate goal of our project is to reduce the size of power outages during a hurricane.”

While the majority of hurricane causalities are direct deaths caused by drowning, falling buildings, or debris, some studies indicate that a significant number of deaths are indirect. Though not directly attributable to the storm itself, indirect deaths are typically caused or exasperated by the severe weather conditions. These can include deaths caused by things such as conditions encountered while evacuating, disruptions to medical care, fires, and vehicle accidents.

One of the biggest contributing factors to indirect hurricane deaths is lack of power. More than three million people were without power in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. More recently, it took almost a year for power restoration in parts of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

“That’s one of the reasons why the Hurricane Maria death toll increased so dramatically,” said Ardakani.

Lack of power can lead to indirect deaths in a variety of ways. One of the most common is carbon monoxide poisoning from alternative power sources.

In October 2012, Hurricane Sandy made an unusually late landfall, knocking out power for more than 8.5 million households. The combination of power outages and cold temperatures led people to use alternative power sources, leading to a spike in both non-fatal and fatal carbon monoxide poisoning cases. More recently, at least four deaths in the Carolinas have been attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning during Hurricane Florence.

Other indirect death causes related to lack of power include electrocution (from attempting to use alternative power sources), fire, and disruptions to medical care.

Ardakani’s project is focused on utilizing forecast data to guide preventive power system operations during hurricanes, thereby reducing power outages and minimizing outages’ impacts. In the process, he hopes the project can limit or reduce the number of indirect deaths in hurricanes related to power outages.

“People lose their lives during these natural disasters. Having the electricity running and the power system working can be vital to saving lives,” said Ardakani.

The NSF award was made possible through preliminary work Ardakani conducted with his USTAR grant. Now, with additional funding in hand, Ardakani’s next steps will be to further develop and scale up the algorithm.

“We want to be able to demonstrate to the industry that our technology can be implemented in large scale systems using realistic data,” said Ardakani.

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