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"Rival" ports across Puget Sound are using game-like simulations to plan their responses—before a big one hits.

Authorities from Washington’s Puget Sound recently gathered around computers, witnessing simulations of how their local ports could be destroyed by an earthquake—and trying make sense of how they might respond in real time.

Large earthquakes and their effects—like tsunamis, floods, and landslides—cause untold damage to cities, while thousands of smaller tremors happen every day. In 2011, mostly because of Japan’s devastating Tōhoku earthquake, the world experienced its worst economic damage as a result of earthquakes.

Response and rebuilding puts a huge strain on cities for months and years afterward. Once the tremors have ended and the clean-up is underway, how can a city make sense of the staggering work ahead? One way: Talk to "reality engineering" company Simudyne, which has developed a simulation tool to help authorities and policymakers better manage earthquake fallout.

(Simudyne)

Located at two convergent tectonic plates, Washington ranks behind only California among states at risk to damaging earthquakes. Communities in the Puget Sound Basin and along the Pacific coast are particularly vulnerable.

In a program funded partly by FEMA’s Port Security Grant Program and aided by disaster planning firm Dynamis Inc., Simudyne worked with the ports of Seattle, Tacoma, Olympia, and Everett to simulate the economic costs of an earthquake and to effectively allocate funds for more efficient responses.

The final report of the Puget Sound Regional Maritime Transportation Disaster Recovery Exercise Program was published in May and remarked on the region’s lack of preparedness for disaster recovery.

“The effects, outcomes, and costs of recovery are not well understood, therefore recovery is often neglected during planning for disasters and is not widely exercised,” it said.

To find a solution, Simudyne worked with seismologists to understand how an earthquake works, and how they could now “damage the port realistically,” explains Simudyne CEO Justin Lyon. Based on the simulated seismic activity, they created a real-time virtual environment.

The simulation sets a scenario at about 30 days after the earthquake has hit. Authorities can fully see the extent of the damage and can figure out what decisions they need to make to rebuild the port.

The software integrates data from normal port operations and lays out the cash flow issues associated with returning to normal. “We were looking at the capacity and availability of the people, the utilities. We were simulating road, rail, and waterways, the docks, the trains, as well as the buildings, all of this physical damage,” explains Justin. “Then we also had a whole section of simulating things around the operating revenue and expenses.”

Simudyne then visualizes the data and damage in a game-like environment reminiscent of Sim City.

(Simudyne)

“We made icons that represented the key assets, the utilities, the transport, the infrastructure,” explains Justin. “They would change color based on how damaged they were. You could drill down and see really specific details around what had occurred.”

Another section simulates operating revenue and expenses, taking into account how long insurance payments take to arrive or how much is available to spend on construction costs.

(Simudyne)

Returning to operation as quickly and efficiently as possible is vital. “Ports generate a lot of money in the area around the port,” adds Justin, with the surrounding areas benefiting economically as well. A joint report from Seattle and Tacoma released last month found the ports supported more than 48,000 jobs (directly, indirectly, and induced), producing $4.3 billion in economic activity. Meanwhile, the Port of Seattle plans to generate 100,000 jobs within the next 25 years.

Hindrances to these economic mainstays for Washington State could have long lasting effects.

“We have to be resilient and recover operations quickly after natural or human-made disasters,” says Lou Paulsen, Port of Tacoma’s director of strategic operations projects and risk management, who led the Tacoma team during the program. “Participating in the earthquake exercise with our local, state, and federal agency partners, as well as our customers, provided a valuable opportunity to evaluate and strengthen our response.”

The workforce and economy cannot recover from a disaster without cooperative efforts, said Simudyne’s report. Earlier this month, the ports of Seattle and Tacoma formed the Seaport Alliance, which will manage marine cargo at both ports in order to expand job creation. For a long a time, the ports had been “rivals.” It’s hoped the agreement will help the ports “create the strongest maritime gateway in North America.”

Simudyne’s technology can be configured for different natural disasters and hazardous scenarios as well. Cities are ill-prepared for when disaster strikes, says Justin, and the occurrence of disasters is ever-growing.

“Computer simulations give policymakers an incredible environment to safely test their response strategies,” he says, “and by doing so, they’ll be far more prepared than they ever could be.”

Top image: neelsky/Shutterstock.com

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