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Hofstra virtual reality project simulates hurricane experience

By donning special goggles, viewers can see what a Category 3 hurricane looks like.

Hofstra students set up hurricane simulator

Six Hofstra University students, under the direction of professor Jase Bernhardt, set up a virtual reality research project in April at the Long Beach Library. Participants used virtual reality goggles to see what it’s like to be in a house as a Category 3 hurricane bears down. This video is from the research project. (Credit: Hofstra University)

Amid darkening skies and pelting rain, branches and roof shingles whipped about, and floodwaters rose into the front yard and then into the living room.

That was Grace Palmisano’s view of a Category 3 hurricane, seen through virtual reality goggles. Experiencing what it’s like to be standing in a coastal house as a storm bears down was “eye-opening,” she said.

The scenario is part of a virtual reality research project conducted by six Hofstra University students under the direction of their professor, Jase Bernhardt.

The aim is to see if such a visceral approach would make coastal residents more likely to heed weather watches and warnings when a dangerous tropical storm is on its way.

The ongoing project, developed with Hofstra’s education and research technology staff, was set up last month at the Long Beach Library, following a five-week residency at a Long Beach coffee shop.

Palmisano, 34, was amazed to see how the simulated scenario escalated, taking her from “high and dry” to standing in a room full of water. The assistant library director’s own real-life view of superstorm Sandy was farther inland at her Franklin Square home.

Early findings from an initial sampling of Hofstra students have shown that “emotional impacts” can result from the experience. Participants who viewed the simulation at the midpoint in the questioning process were more likely to say they would likely warn others and evacuate themselves if it were real, said Bernhardt, assistant professor in the Department of Geology, Environment and Sustainability.

There’s nothing like “seeing water rising up to chest level,” he said, to convince people to take a tropical storm warning more seriously.

The campus endeavor was launched in October in the midst of an Atlantic hurricane season described as “furious” by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with 10 hurricanes, six of them major. Activity for this year’s hurricane season, which officially starts June 1, was expected to be slightly above average, according to an early call from Colorado State University researchers.

Such simulations might one day be delivered via mobile phones as they become more virtual-reality friendly, Bernhardt said. The scenario could be part of the texted storm warnings, personalized to the phone’s location, that already are issued through the wireless emergency alert system when extreme weather events are expected.

Social scientists see promise in the technology, which is becoming increasingly accessible.

“Researchers have shown that it’s not necessarily about more information, but about meaningful information,” said Gina Eosco, a risk communication expert with Cherokee Nation Strategic Programs, which provides support to NOAA’s Office of Weather and Air Quality. Virtual reality “may help make weather risks come alive and feel more believable,” she added.

However, questions remain, such as whether it’s better to issue simulations well before a storm arrives or as it’s bearing down, she said.

The technology needs to be more than just a “cool” way to heighten awareness, said Sun Joo (Grace) Ahn, associate professor at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Calling on users to make decisions related to saving themselves — or being better prepared to begin with — can help change behavior, she added.

Bernhardt said the next step in the Hofstra project is to see how participants respond to scenarios of varying intensity, ranging from tropical storm levels on up, with an indication of which is most likely to occur and which is least likely. Further down the road, he said, the team has its eyes on other types of severe weather, such as tornadoes.

The research project is one of several initiatives Bernhardt has launched since he arrived at Hofstra in 2016.

And in October, he’s serving as director of a hurricane symposium at Hofstra, looking at present-day forecasting and communications methods, as well as approaches for the future. The symposium will also mark the 80th anniversary of the Long Island Express, a Category 3 storm that barreled directly into Suffolk County on Sept. 21, 1938.

For Bernhardt, remnants of 1996’s Tropical Storm Bertha, along with other weather events, helped influence his career direction, he said. The Albany native was also “predisposed” to the work, he said, as his grandfather is an “amateur weather watcher.”

Angela Rienzo, 19, a sophomore geology major, has been onboard with the VR project since its inception. She surveyed students on campus last year, then helped bring it to Long Beach this semester.

She found a number of participants who’ve ridden out the real thing saying the simulation is largely on target.

According to Rienzo, a student from the Houston area returned to campus last year after Hurricane Harvey and its catastrophic flooding and said the simulation was “what I just came back from.”

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