Emergency response portals ready for hurricane season

InsideNASA, NGA’s Virtual Earth can quickly shift into crisis mode when disaster strikes

Although it’s hard to imagine today as the price of oil surpasses $70 a barrel, Houston residents fleeing Hurricane Rita last year were willing to pay any price for a few gallons from the short supply of gasoline.

NASA employees at the Johnson Space Center in Houston were less desperate, however. NASA Emergency Operations employees used the agency’s customizable internal Web portal to create online maps that showed which gas stations recently received fuel deliveries.

When evacuees called NASA’s emergency number, employees who were logged on to the Web site were able to direct their colleagues to the closest stations.

The portal, InsideNASA, normally publishes daily communications for employees, but the system can go into crisis mode with a few clicks of the mouse, relaying office closures notices, evacuation procedures and damage assessments. Now that Web access is ubiquitous, many departments are configuring their agency Web sites to act as first responders in the event of an emergency.

During hurricanes Rita and Katrina, NASA employees uploaded resources to the portal on the fly with new enterprise content management software from Vignette. With five of the agency’s facilities in harm’s way — Johnson, Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, Alabama’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Mississippi’s Stennis Space Center and Louisiana’s Michoud Assembly Facility — NASA is ready to deploy emergency Web communications for the 2006 hurricane season.

Katrina knocked out electricity and most forms of communication at Stennis and Michoud. “Roughly a third to a quarter of our workforce is affected when we have a season like we had last year,” said Jeanne Holm, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s chief knowledge architect and program manager for InsideNASA.

When the guys at Kennedy are evacuated and want to post pictures of what’s been affected or put up a video of how bad the conditions are or put up text, we wanted them to be able to do it from a cyber café.”

Using InsideNASA, employees can post some emergency information, such as evacuation routes and real-time weather feeds, before a storm hits.

But officials cannot anticipate what data will be most vital when disaster strikes. So the portal’s content builder allows NASA employees to modify the Web site without altering the agency’s enterprise architecture.

When Houston employees were stuck in traffic jams and running out of gas, NASA employees compiled data from local gas stations and merged it with Google’s mapping service to show all employees where evacuees could refuel.

“Not that we could have predicted that’s the type of information employees would have wanted,” Holm said.

NASA’s information technology infrastructure is particularly well-suited for large user demand. NASA’s public Web site has enough bandwidth to support record-breaking Web traffic. About 40,000 people logged on to NASA.gov for a press conference about the landing of the Huygens probe on the Saturn moon Titan. Within an hour, the agency’s Web throughput peaked at 3 gigabits/sec, or 15 to 20 times normal traffic. Last July 4, during the Deep Impact comet mission, NASA had 850 million hits in a single day.

Larry Warnock, chief marketing officer at Vignette, said the company’s content builder is ideal for nontechies who need to create Web pages quickly under pressure. To compose, users simply drag and drop the components they want on the site. Employees do not need to remember any HTML codes. In addition, wizards on the screen guide the user on how to design graphics. “A mortal man can edit what the content actually says,” Warnock said.

In addition to NASA, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) has also tailored its emergency response Web site to appeal to the average user.

NGA, which provides geospatial data for national security purposes, developed a customized version of Virtual Earth, Microsoft’s online mapping service, to aid disaster recovery efforts.

During Katrina and Rita, NGA used Virtual Earth to create a portal that provided citizens, government users and partner organizations with maps and satellite imagery of the disaster area.

Through a viewer focused on the affected regions of the Gulf Coast, users could zoom in on specific street addresses and places such as the Louisiana Superdome or the Gulfport, Miss., airport. Then they could move a slider to switch between views of street maps, NGA’s aerial imagery or a blending of the two. The ability to see physical features was crucial in the aftermath of Katrina because many roads were flooded and street signs were nonexistent. First responders used physical structures as navigation points.

With the Virtual Earth application, NGA could focus on its mission — distributing aerial imagery — instead of aggregating map datasets.

Bruce Harris, NGA’s director of IT solutions, said the agency wanted to pull data from existing platforms as much as possible to reduce costs and provide users with a familiar-looking interface. Serving the public in this manner was unusual for NGA, which was established to serve government workers.

“NGA has recognized that its customer base has changed over the past couple of years,” Harris said. “While support to the military will always remain a priority, we have seen that NGA has the ability to support a much broader customer base. What occurred during the last hurricane season served to help solidify that.”

People sitting hundreds of miles away could log on to see if the storm had flooded their houses. With that information, they could decide whether and when to return home — and what to expect. Meanwhile, government agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers, used the portal to monitor the status of the levees before the flooding and, afterward, during repairs.

Petroleum companies, which the government asked to determine the status of refineries and pipelines, were some of the most frequent users. NGA Earth’s imagery helped the companies evaluate environmental risks and determine how long it might take to bring operations back online.

All of the site’s data is unclassified, but NGA can restrict access to certain datasets for licensing or sensitivity purposes. For instance, portions of NGA Earth were unavailable early in Katrina relief efforts until the agency finalized agreements with commercial data providers.

Harris intends for NGA Earth to expand beyond crisis support and provide everyday, worldwide assistance to the military and intelligence communities. But his first priority is to tweak the platform for the current hurricane season. Last year, the portal was not able to support all the users downloading large image files, but this year, the system has been bolstered to handle heavy Web traffic.

“The reality this year is that we have to not only provide everything we did last year but more of it and do it faster and better this time around,” Harris said.

Working InsideNASA

NASA’s internal Web portal, InsideNASA, helps employees concentrate on safety, not technology, when catastrophe strikes. A variety of natural and man-made disasters affect NASA’s research centers located near fault lines, coastal flooding areas and shuttle launch sites.

Accessing the portal requires the same amount of training as teaching an employee to use a Web site such as Yahoo, and users can access it wherever they have Web service. Learning how to publish on the portal takes a couple of hours and can also be done anywhere. All NASA employees can log on via the agency’s virtual private network. This summer, every employee will be able to sign on with a password via a Web browser.

Each NASA center has its own customizable page on InsideNASA. The pages are preset to receive emergency data feeds from agencies such as the Homeland Security Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During a crisis, employees need only drag, drop and click to activate the page and add new information, such as the best evacuation routes according to information from real-time traffic feeds.

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