GIS comes to the rescue

After hurricane, geographic systems vital to disaster relief

Geographic information systems could become a more essential part of disaster relief efforts after experts effectively used the technology to aid emergency operations after Hurricane Katrina.

In the days following Katrina, GIS experts in Mississippi helped build search maps for first responders, created and updated maps on various issues such as electrical power restoration, and helped Coast Guard rescue operations by translating hundreds of addresses into coordinates.

The GIS experts, who were volunteers from across the state and country, converged on Mississippi after an urgent request from Talbot Brooks, director of Delta State University's Center for Interdisciplinary Geospatial Information Technologies in Cleveland, Miss.

Two days before Katrina hit, Brooks came to Jackson County, Miss., the state emergency operations center's location, to help the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA). He discovered that the extent of GIS use was a software program called HAZUS, which models potential wind and flood damage based on a hurricane's path.

"This model wouldn't run the flood portion very well at all," he said. "It crashed because of data input problems."

After the storm hit, the two biggest needs were creating street maps for first responders and helping the Coast Guard pinpoint survivors by providing latitude and longitude coordinates. With the emergency operations center's phones ringing off the hook, Brooks called for more GIS experts.

Several Mississippi universities responded, and a volunteer group formed under the aegis of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association. The GISCorps, which was formed two years earlier to help other countries with their GIS operations, sent more than 20 volunteers to Jackson County.

In the first two weeks after Katrina hit, Brooks assembled about 60 volunteer GIS experts — 20 from GISCorps and 40 from state universities — who assisted in data development, map production, technical support, Global Positioning System technology use and logistics.

Other state and federal agencies, dozens of companies — namely ESRI — and organizations provided resources and equipment.

Outside the emergency operations center facility, the group established an operations center in a recreational vehicle dubbed the "Brain Bus," donated by Mississippi State University. Inside, volunteers created 10 workstations with laptop computers borrowed from an ESRI training course.

J.D. Overton, a technical marketing representative at ESRI, was one of the GISCorps volunteers. He and two colleagues drove to Jackson County from St. Louis four days after the hurricane hit. "That was when things were as chaotic as they probably were," he said. The three worked through the night so others could rest.

Overton, who stayed about five days, was responsible for coordinating and centralizing data. He said state officials wanted maps to demonstrate progress to the media.

"I believe it was about every four hours they would get new statistics or they would get new information about what power had been restored," he said. He added that officials constantly received updates about shelters and soup kitchens that had reached their capacity.

Among other efforts, volunteers helped translate more than 100 addresses and locations into latitude and longitude coordinates for the Coast Guard's helicopter rescue missions. They also developed a Web site and database of missing people and plotted their last known locations on a map.

The volunteers worked around the clock, even though their operations exceeded MEMA's organizational structure. GIS wasn't part of its original game plan, Brooks said.

He said volunteers pestered officials from MEMA, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and other groups to get updates. Then they used that information to create and print maps, which they delivered to those officials.

"It worked out very well, and this state is moving to try to adopt this into a more permanent structure," said Brooks, who stayed in Jackson County for nearly two weeks.

"The need for GIS to get elevated and be part of a built-in infrastructure and part of the decision-making process so that information flows through geospatial technology is absolutely critical," he added.

Shoreh Elhami, who co-founded the GISCorps, said she sifted through more than 250 resumes in the first two days after getting Brooks' request. The organization gave most volunteers 24-hour notice that they needed to travel to Mississippi.

Volunteers came from a dozen states and Washington, D.C. Since the initial effort, the corps has sent several more volunteers to areas in Mississippi and Louisiana to help with rescue and recovery efforts.

Elhami said Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour has seen firsthand how GIS can help in emergency situations, and she is encouraged that the state's emergency officials are now aware of geospatial technology's use in such disasters. But not all local governments use GIS because the cost is prohibitive for them, she said.

"It varies greatly," Elhami said. "I can tell you without hesitation."

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