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Virginia Beach Harnesses Data to Improve Flood Forecasting and Educate Residents

Virginia Beach, VA, USA

At a Glance

As a high-risk flood area, Virginia Beach needed to plan for sea-level rise and address pervasive long-term flood threats. Joining together with other local municipalities, the city implemented a water level sensor system that collects data to improve forecasting efforts and inform citizens of flooding risk.

Problem Addressed

According to the First National Flood Risk Assessment in 2020, Virginia Beach is the most at-risk city in the state of Virginia, with 20% of its 28,000 properties in danger of flooding. Starting in 2014, the city's GIS coordinator and city teams began engaging in a take-charge approach to address weather-related flooding issues such as hurricanes and nor'easters by proposing multiple projects to the Enterprise GIS Policy Board.

Initially, the city acquired Lidar topographic data that helps to develop accurate, up-to-date flood maps. Lidar data is created from plane-mounted lasers that produce highly detailed images of the terrain, including low areas where water tends to pool during floods. The city then evaluated recent advances in sensor technologies and high-resolution hydrodynamic modeling research to best leverage the Lidar topography data they’d acquired. The city needed a solution that would provide comprehensive data to aid in forecasting, as well as allow citizen stakeholders across the city to better understand Virginia Beach’s weather risks.

Virginia Beach used/is using IoT Water Sensors and Data Monitoring System to address this/these challenge(s).

Solution(s) Used

In the past four years, two proposals that addressed weather-related flooding issues were submitted to the city for consideration in addition to programs already in progress. They included utilizing Internet of Things “IoT” sensors to improve real-time data collection and understand the impact of weather patterns on the flow of water. In seeking to understand these new solutions, the city invited faculty at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science to present their findings and proposals. As a result, the city co-developed the StormSense Smart Cities initiative through the USIgnite/NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) Global City Teams Challenge with VIMS, Newport News, and Norfolk. The goal of StormSense was to develop a standardized, automated water level monitoring system that integrates disparate data sources needed to improve forecasting efforts.

In 2015, Virginia Beach Public Works funded the “StormSenseVB” project and supported the United States Geological Survey to install 10 water level sensors with weather stations to measure water level, air pressure, wind speed, and rainfall to help key decision-makers and citizens better understand flooding in the City. The sensors were installed in July 2016. The sensors communicate via the Internet of Things (IoT) to routinely monitor and publicly report water levels to the StormSense cloud every 6 minutes.

StormSense represents a quantum leap of creativity for Virginia Beach and Hampton Roads by defining the best practices for flood observation, prediction, analysis, and data dissemination in six ways: (1) testing multiple sensor technologies, and their communication protocols, energy requirements, and accuracy, (2) leveraging high-resolution hydrodynamic model results for street-level flood forecasting, (3) disparate data integration architecture in near real-time, (4) leveraging multi-cloud environments using Amazon Web Services for data, AI, and voice-response query integration, (5) data presentation and big data support using Microsoft Cloud, and (6) spatial mapping of inundation vulnerability scenarios.

These outcomes are accomplished through the installation of additional sensors by the city to augment the utility of existing water level, streamflow, and rainfall sensors provided by federal agencies and providing aggregated datasets to StormSense for improved predictions. The city uses these datasets to develop a custom-tailored approach to assessing neighborhood-level flood risk alongside effective mitigation techniques and make strategic decisions that will have a real-world impact on the community and its citizens.

Outcomes

  1. More collaboration and communication on smart city projects and expertise across the region, empowering areas to work together on smart city infrastructure
  2. Money and lives were saved through educating citizens on flood risk management and proactive mitigation advised by sensors and models
  3. Ability to better plan for sea-level rise and pervasive long-term inundation threats and include them in the city's comprehensive plan, given the valuable water level data
  4. Virginia Beach residents can discover real-time water levels and atmospheric conditions at StormSense and USGS sensors near them, through interactive voice-query support.

Lessons Learned

  1. Getting local governments that often compete for funding to collaborate together can be a challenge. However, flooding is a shared problem that can benefit from a collaborative solution.

Something Unique

This project was named the "2018 Outstanding Achievement in Innovation Award" Winner for the Alliance for Innovation.

In 2016, the technology was recognized as a "Replicable Smart City Technology" by The White House and NIST.

Who Should Consider?

Cities of all sizes facing flood threats and sea level rise, and that want reliable methods of forecasting flood risk to keep their residents informed.

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