Over 300,000 Floridians were ordered to clear out earlier this month as Hurricane Michael picked up steam in the Gulf of Mexico. For those in the storm’s path without cars or other means of transportation, though, evacuating was easier said than done.

It’s a hurdle that residents and local officials alike confront with every new natural disaster, but now researchers at the University of Maryland and Morgan State University are developing a tool that could help planners, first responders and others shore up the safety of vulnerable populations.

“Officials make decisions about where to set up “safe zones” and how to distribute other resources based in part on metrics showing how accessible a shelter or hospital is,” said Cinzia Cirillo, a professor of civil and environmental engineering, and the project’s lead researcher. “But those reports almost always assume people have access to a private car, and they rarely take into account differences in income levels across a community.”

“The result is that members of a community can find themselves stranded in their homes without officials knowing they are there,” she added.

Using the tool Cirillo is developing with project partners Celeste Chavis, a Morgan State associate professor of transportation and urban infrastructure, and Kartik Kaushik, a UMD graduate research assistant, officials will be able to have a more accurate view of an area serviced by a shelter or hospital by adding GIS layers to their existing maps. These layers will take into account the average income of an area and local public transit options in addition to the traditional criteria of time, cost and distance, helping officials quickly assess likely shelter, transportation and other needs for low-income populations.

The researchers will pilot the tool in the Baltimore metropolitan area using data from Anne Arundel and Carroll counties, both of which have community evacuation plans. Before the project ends in the summer of 2019, Cirillo, Kaushik and Chavis will map vulnerable populations in the counties, identify safe zones under a range of flood and storm surge scenarios, and calculate the real accessibility of those locations to the public. The tool and its results will be shared with Anne Arundel and Carroll counties’ officials.

This project is funded through MSU’s Urban Mobility and Equity Center, the lead group in a federally funded consortium that includes MSU, UMD and Virginia Tech.