HAMPTON ROADS — This June marks the second year the state will use a new evacuation zone system that prioritizes properties that are prone to flooding, says Jeff Caldwell, director of external affairs for Virginia Department of Emergency Management.
In June 2017, the Commonwealth of Virginia introduced “tiered evacuation zones” to 23 localities in Eastern Virginia, including Hampton Roads.
The new designations specifically address flood-prone areas, with the most at-risk areas designated “Zone A” and the least at-risk designated “Zone D.”
Evacuations will then be announced alphabetically, which may call for residents leaving their respective cities, or may call for them to simply move to a different zone, which would presumably be less prone to flooding. These new zones merely inform residents when, if, and where to evacuate, but do not change existing evacuation routes, Caldwell said.
“The evacuation routes will stay the same,” Caldwell said, adding that the major evacuation routes — Interstates 64, 460, 264 — are still in place. But the agency hopes the new zoned system will eliminate the need for full evacuations.
With hurricane season approaching, the VDEM wants the public to “know your zone.” The state has created an interactive tool that allows residents to look up their addresses and find out their respective zones.
The process of creating the new zoning system began in 2016 when VDEM hired Atkins Global, an analytics company that maps flood data.
Atkins performed an analysis of the 23 localities’ storm surge data and flooding patterns. Caldwell said this allowed for a more scientific understanding of what areas would be impacted.
“In analyzing data, the major risk to life is flooding and storm surge, which is in relation to resident’s location and storm intensity,” Caldwell said.
Moving people out of flood prone areas — even if it means just a mile away — could remove people from the risk of flood-related deaths or injuries without having to fully evacuate cities.
“Prior to these zones, all evacuation plans looked at the category of storm,” Caldwell said. “Old models tried to move everyone out of harm’s way, west toward Richmond. A lot of focus relied on interstate lane reversal, but moving 1.5 million people out of Hampton Roads, for example, would have been a challenge.”
VDEM partnered with the emergency managers for all locales involved to simplify and unify evacuation plans.
Caldwell said “every locality used to have their own evacuation zones: Virginia Beach had 43 evacuation zones,” for example.
With those 23 localities participating, Caldwell said residents could do the math and see why it became “daunting” to try and communicate with cities during storm evacuations.
The new system eliminates all of the local evacuation zones — now there are four zones for all 23 localities.