Public Release: 

Evacuating New Orleans: LSU and Los Alamos team up

Louisiana State University

BATON ROUGE - Brian Wolshon, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at LSU and member of the LSU Hurricane Center, has been getting international recognition for his research and application of emergency evacuations and traffic modeling. But he isn't stopping there.

Thanks to his expertise, prominence in the field and continued efforts, Wolshon is leading the way for LSU's students and faculty to collaborate with one of the premier research institutions in the U.S. B the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The two institutions signed a memorandum of agreement last year, allowing faculty, post-doctoral researchers and eventually even graduate students to have access to the cutting-edge facilities and distinguished experts in residence at Los Alamos. Wolshon spent much of last summer there, working with scientists specializing in computer modeling.

"They're very interested in what we're doing here, and view our participation as an important piece of accomplishing their goals," said Wolshon.

Los Alamos has sophisticated, large-scale computer modeling systems that Wolshon and others at LSU will assist in applying to hurricanes. "They ultimately want to have a system able to predict the impact of any given hurricane in order to determine the best response to the potential damage. In other words, the sort of holy grail would be a system that can help them best allocate resources in the aftermath of a natural disaster," said Wolshon. Los Alamos is also interested in the advanced traffic engineering for which Wolshon is best known.

Collaboration with Los Alamos provides a wealth of benefits, both tangible and intangible, for LSU and its national standing. For example, Wolshon and his team of researchers have recently received a large, multi-year grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to adapt and enhance Los Alamos evacuation computer models and determine how to apply them to different emergency situations.

The grant will fund Wolshon and his team's continued efforts to model the traffic patterns of New Orleans in order to have the ability to test theoretical evacuation routes and plans. "If we can show that it works in New Orleans, cities like Chicago and New York will be next on the list.

These places are watching our work very eagerly, waiting to see if they'll be able to use this," he said.

While such cities may not have the same need for evacuations due to hurricanes, the hope is that this technology can be applied to homeland security situations, too. "There has to be a way to get everyone out of a city in case of emergency. Places with concentrated population levels definitely need to have a plan, no matter how far-fetched the idea of a terrorist event might be," Wolshon said.

"Think about Houston when Hurricane Rita hit. They didn't plan the evacuation, and there were monumental traffic catastrophes. I think more people died during the evacuation than they did during the storm!" The fatalities included more than 20 senior citizens trapped in a nursing home bus when it caught fire. "These are the kind of tragedies we want to avoid," he said.

As a pioneer in the field, Wolshon truly has become the man with the plan for emergency evacuations. "About six or eight years ago, no one had done any research on evacuations. The general mindset seemed to be that there wasn't any need for planning B people could just leave whichever way they wanted," he said. "There was no management involved." Getting in on the ground floor, he quickly established himself as a national leader after Hurricane Ivan in 2004, when untested traffic plans resulted in major gridlock on primary evacuation routes.

"Because of his work after Ivan, the Katrina vehicular evacuation was the largest, most successful evacuation in New Orleans B and possibly U.S. B history," said Marc Levitan, director of the LSU Hurricane Center.

"It wasn't perfect. There were major flaws, and people got stuck, but it was far better than previous evacuation attempts," Wolshon said.

"Brian is one of our biggest success stories. He had never done any research into evacuations until the Hurricane Center asked him to collaborate on the big National Science Foundation proposal for hurricane engineering about six years ago, before evacuation was on anyone's radar," said Levitan. "Fast forward to today, and Brian is recognized worldwide as probably the top traffic engineer in the world on this very hot topic."

Wolshon also founded and chairs the Emergency Evacuation Committee of the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies, has done most of the seminal work in contraflow evacuations, has numerous publications and students working in this area and is appointed to federal panels and commissions on emergency evacuations.

Other countries have started to take notice of the work being done by Wolshon and his LSU team, most notably Australia, New Zealand and Japan. "Whole groups of people come to see what we're doing and why our evacuations are working so well," he said. "Australia and Japan are concerned about cyclones and tsunamis, and New Zealand is worried about volcanic eruptions."

LSU researchers involved in this collaboration will have the unique opportunity to see their work being applied in a relatively short period of time. "As an academic, a lot of times you labor in obscurity. The greatest thing about our work is that stuff we worked on only three years ago is already being implemented. States have already started to make changes in the way they handle evacuations," he said.

And that is the most important part of the plan. "We want people to use our discoveries and models," said Wolshon. "We want to save lives."


For more information, contact Brian Wolshon at

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