NPS Student’s Award-Winning Thesis Helps Naval Station Newport Prepare for Hurricane

When an extreme weather event hits, emergency preparation and procedures get put to the test, and so does the cohesion of multiple areas’ evacuation plans. A lack of communication between cities, or between military bases and their local communities, can result in less road accessibility than either party planned for and less room in shelters than anticipated. 

To avoid these kinds of scenarios from happening, the DOD Office of Economic Adjustment, renamed the Office of Local Defense Community Cooperation in 2021, awarded a grant to the City of Newport on Aquidneck Island in Rhode Island, and its resident naval base, to develop coastal resilience plans in collaboration with Naval Station (NAVSTA) Newport, the U.S. Naval War College, and University of Rhode Island. The 18-month Military Installation Resilience Review (MIRR) was led by University of Rhode Island Professor of Marine Affairs Dr. Austin Becker.

Around the time the grant was presented, U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Amanda Jones was looking for a thesis topic to complete her Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) master’s degree in Operations Research (OR). She wanted her thesis topic to be useful to people both in and out of the Navy, having worked in logistics and humanitarian planning for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) before coming to NPS. 

After speaking with a colleague who did his thesis on hurricane preparation in the U.S. Virgin Islands with Dr. Daniel Eisenberg, Assistant Professor of Operations Research at NPS, and Deputy Director for the university’s Center for Infrastructure Defense (CID), and Dr. David Alderson, Professor of Operations Research and Director of the CID, she felt doing something similar was the right fit for her. Eisenberg directed her focus towards collaborating with the Newport MIRR effort.

As it turned out, the Jones’ work on the installation resilience review ended up being applicable much sooner than anyone anticipated when Hurricane Henri threatened the area in August of 2021, the first storm to make landfall in Rhode Island in 20 years. Suddenly, Jones, Alderson and Becker’s team found themselves informing the Newport base on best evacuation and preparation procedures before Jones’ thesis was even published.

“Dr. Alderson reached out and next thing I knew, it’s Friday night at like 11:00, and he and I are running the model and making a PowerPoint slide and brief, trying to interpret data to provide the emergency responders at the Navy base data for them to brief to the base [commanding officer] on Saturday morning about what might happen if the base has to evacuate,” Jones recalls. “It was very satisfying to be able to see my thesis, that wasn’t even done yet, was actually able to immediately be used in a real-life scenario.”

“Working with students to solve important, real problems is the most rewarding thing we do at NPS, particularly when we can have immediate impact on operations,” Alderson added.

Jones’ impressive work was presented with the Chief of Naval Operations Award in Operations Research … Her thesis was published in Sept. 2021. 

“I’ve had other students who have done award-worthy work, but Amanda’s project is the first one I’ve seen being used operationally before she even graduates,” Eisenberg said. 

Jones’ project was part of a broader effort called the Critical Infrastructure Resilience Collaboration and Assessment (CIRCA), which is funded by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP). The project’s goal is to develop methods that measure worst-case disruptions across independent infrastructure systems on DOD military installations and to create models that support DOD infrastructure planning and management. 

The need for this work has increased as the potential for extreme weather events increases. For Rhode Island specifically, recent studies suggest the latitudinal range of tropical cyclones is expanding poleward in warming climates, suggesting instances like Hurricane Henri could become more common at Naval Station Newport.

For her thesis, Jones focused on how well the Aquidneck Island’s transportation infrastructure system and designated evacuation shelters could manage mass departures of populations located in flood or evacuation zones. To do this, she produced a time-phased network flow model out of data on population sizes, flooding information, possible routes, and previous evacuation scenarios to measure optimal evacuation times. 

She says the most challenging part of the project was building the computer code to run the model, but she was grateful most of the data sets she found were relatively complete and could be used immediately.

Jones considers her work part of the foundation for Rhode Island’s evacuation modeling, and she hopes future students can build on it to incorporate true time phase data that accounts for sea-level rise and accurate storm surge data. She said she’s already been contacted by another OR student who might continue her work.

Since graduating from NPS, Jones is putting her operations research skills to use, assigned to the Navy Supply Systems Command (NAVSUP) headquarters as an operations research analyst.