Disaster maps put online

In an effort to provide the public with more information to prepare for natural disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency last month added an electronic mapping feature to one of its educational programs.

The public can access the electronic maps on the World Wide Web to view the history of tornadoes, hurricanes, hailstorms, earthquakes, windstorms and floods near their homes or for any area in the United States.

The online mapping project is part of the much broader Project Impact, FEMA's multipronged educational initiative to help citizens and communities "protect themselves from the devastating effects of natural disasters by taking actions that dramatically reduce disruption and loss," according to a FEMA statement.

FEMA created Project Impact with the idea that disaster-prevention plans develop at the local level. The electronic mapping project will enable local governments and the public to make decisions about whether to buy certain types of disaster insurance, how much local revenue to devote to disaster preparation and whether to develop land that may be highly susceptible to flooding.

"It's a project that's intended to tell you your risks," said Todd Rogers, who oversees federal business development for software company Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. (ESRI), which has offered free assistance for the mapping project. "People really need to know where their risks are."

Mark Whitney, the spatial technology leader for Project Impact, said the site gives the public information that may have been difficult to find in the past. "Before this site, virtually no one in the country would have known where to go to look at a flood map. Now people have easy access to information like that," Whitney said.

ESRI developed and hosts Project Impact's Web site for hazard maps. At the site, www.esri.com/hazards, visitors can build basic maps that show the history of natural disasters. Visitors can create maps based on their ZIP codes, towns or congressional districts.

Rogers calls the maps a "quick and dirty" way for the public to get a picture of the potential for disasters in their communities - information that many citizens typically do not know. "Are you living in a flood plain? You may not know that," he said.

Whitney called the site a "starting place" for understanding disaster risk.

For smaller communities, the online mapping tool may be more than welcome. Rogers said some communities cannot afford sophisticated electronic mapping tools or geographic information system (GIS) projects that would give them comprehensive pictures of where the potential for disaster is.

Other communities, however, have begun to put a lot of effort and money into GIS for disaster planning. Mary Barron, manager of the Office of Emergency Services for Santa Barbara County, Calif., said the county began in January a GIS project funded with a two-year Project Impact grant from FEMA. She said the GIS project represents the largest expenditure under the grant, a cost of $300,000.

The Santa Barbara County project will help emergency managers plan and respond to natural disasters. Managers will have at their disposal an array of information - from the location of bodies of water to the location of emergency vehicles - that can be "layered" onto an electronic map to give a comprehensive picture of hazard hot spots and useful county resources. The county is still defining the scope of the GIS project, Barron said. But some of the information collected through the program will be made available to the public on a Web site, she said.

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