Advanced computer modeling provided emergency responders with an immersive backdrop for a recent discussion on disaster planning and response readiness hosted by The Atlantic Council

(Photo: Advanced computer modeling provided emergency responders with an immersive backdrop for a recent discussion on disaster planning and response readiness hosted by The Atlantic Council)

Newport, RI – With the remnants of Hurricane Florence gathered outside, thought leaders from across a variety of disciplines assembled inside Newport’s City Hall last Tuesday, Sept. 18th to discuss how the City might respond to a scenario similar to the one still being played out in the Carolinas.

According to a press release from Tom Shevlin, Communications Officer for the City of Newport, the roundtable discussion, entitled “Surging Shores” was organized by the Atlantic Council, a prominent Washington, D.C.-based think tank and SIM-CI, a Dutch technology firm focused on building resilient communities through advanced infrastructure planning and risk modeling.

Tuesday’s session was the second in a series of small, senior-level discussions designed to explore policy and operational questions associated with the resilience of critical infrastructure systems to manmade and natural disasters. The first session, held in May of 2018 at the Atlantic Council Headquarters in Washington, D.C., featured a range of former senior officials from the Departments of Homeland Security and Defense, as well as retired senior military officials and senior officials from a range of relevant private sector groups.

The group chose Newport in recognition of its work to develop a resilience-based economy, and it was the first time the simulation has been run on a municipal or statewide level.

According to City Manager Joe Nicholson, the discussion validates some of the work the City has been pursuing around its North End Innovation District and reflects the City’s desire to serve as a hub for global resiliency research and development.

“It was certainly a timely and valuable discussion, and positions the City of Newport at the leading edge of what is still a relatively new field.” Nicholson said following the discussion according to the press release. “Both the Atlantic Council and SIM-CI are truly world-class organizations, and we were thrilled to have hosted them.”

Tuesday’s discussion focused on a hypothetical strike by a Category Three hurricane on the fictional coastal community of Ellery Shores. Through the use of high tech virtual reality and proprietary computer modeling, the simulation followed the fictitious storm from forecast to fruition, with effects ranging from a total citywide blackout and the loss of critical infrastructure to the specter of a cyberattack on the area’s electrical grid.

In addition to City Department heads and key public safety personnel from across Newport County, those in attendance included Mary M. Jackson, Vice Admiral, Commander, Navy Installations Command; and Mike Steinmetz, State Cybersecurity Officer, Senior Advisor Homeland Security, State of Rhode Island.

Representatives from the Newport City Council, SIM-CI, Salve Regina University, Newport Hospital, National Grid, the City of Providence, the Rhode Island National Guard, the Naval War College, the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, the American Red Cross, the Newport Amateur Radio Club, and representatives from the consortium helping to develop Newport’s envisioned Innovation District were also on hand.

Newport Fire Chief Brian Dugan was among those in attendance for the discussion. “This scenario is what keeps us awake at night,” he said in the press release.

Newport Fire Chief Brian Dugan listens on during a discussion detailing how a Category 3 hurricane could impact a community with similar characteristics to Newport.

With a diverse population, constant stream of visitors, and limiting geography, it’s critical that responding agencies work in concert with one another when both preparing for and responding to a potentially catastrophic event.

With Hurricane Florence having just rattled the Carolinas, the potential for Newport to experience a scenario such as the one discussed on Tuesday shouldn’t be underestimated, those in attendance stressed.

Marco Camacho was one of two members of the City Council who participated in the discussion.  “Kudos to City Manager Nicholson and our City Administration for bringing together a most impressive panel of Federal, State, and Local authorities for today’s Resiliency Roundtable,” he said in the release.

“While Newport is certainly recognized for our strategic, economic, and cultural strengths, today’s Roundtable also recognized the potential vulnerabilities our City’s critical civilian and military infrastructures have from both natural disasters and outside attacks.We were fortunate Newport wasn’t hit with the full force of Sandy in 2012, but it’s only a matter of time before a hurricane like 1938 or Carol in 1954 hits us again. Throw a coordinated cyberattack into the mix and the catastrophic effects in our region could last days, or even weeks. Our City’s forward thinking and proactive preparedness will help ensure that we are able to rebound quickly, even if we find ourselves initially cut off from Federal and State assistance.”

Second Ward Councilor Lynn Ceglie agreed, stressing the need for the City on a policy level to continue to emphasize the importance of investing in long-term risk management and infrastructure improvements.

“It’s vital that the City continues to invest and think proactively about how we can build resiliency into our community,” she said in the release. As a City Councilor, Ceglie said that she’s been focused on educating the public as to what the City has to do to be more resilient in the face of manmade or natural disasters, citing the need to invest in certain infrastructure improvements before disasters such as Hurricane Florence or Sandy occur.

Among the questions posed to those in attendance: How do you protect and restore critical infrastructure such as water treatment and sewer plants?  How do you manage an evacuation – if necessary – of tourists, residents, and those with special needs? How can the City, working alongside other agencies, effectively communicate critical information to assure residents of their safety? And what type of processes and infrastructure improvements can we put in place in advance of these types of events to mitigate their effects?

According to Sarah Atkins, the City’s Community Resilience Specialist, Newport is an ideal community for discussing these types of events, and for developing new programs and technologies that could help mitigate their effects.

Newport, she said in the release, “is small enough to change, but big enough to matter.”

Indeed, since weathering Superstorm Sandy, the City has sought to establish itself as a global hub for resilience-oriented thought leadership and innovation, particularly related to natural disasters and climate change. With a unique geography, diverse population, and access to world-class talent, Atkins sees Newport, and Rhode Island at large, as an ideal incubator for global resilience technology.

And while the City continues to invest in new technologies to help ensure that critical systems are less vulnerable to long-term disruptions, part of true community resiliency also pertains to the need for individual preparedness and redundancy of communications.

To that end, while digital channels are vital to modern communications, HAM radio operators, and even old-fashioned fire department call boxes which don’t rely on electricity to operate are also seen as potentially critical resources in the event of acute infrastructure failures.

For City Manager Nicholson, it’s also equally important that the community begin to engage in these types of discussions well before a weather advisory is issued or potential threat is deemed imminent.

“This dialogue isn’t something that ever really ends,” he said in the release. “One of the things that I’m most concerned about is building out redundancy in our communiations, so that in the event we do have a natural or manmade disaster, we’re able to effectively convey critical information in advance of and during a critical event.”

As several members of the roundtable noted, conversations around emergency response and resiliency need to begin in good times. The message needs to be consistent, it needs to be truthful, and it needs to be timely.

The SIM-CI simulation model presented on Tuesday was designed help policy leaders and first responders bring those issues into focus in a controlled environment. For roughly three hours on Tuesday, it did just that.