Web extra: GIS volunteers offered expertise during Katrina

When Shoreh Elhami, the geographic information systems director at the Delaware County Auditor’s Office in Ohio, had an idea to form a volunteer group of GIS experts to provide assistance in developing countries, she hardly thought they would be used in natural disasters.

Two years ago, through the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA), a national nonprofit group of GIS professionals, Elhami and several colleagues formed GISCorps, whose mission is to support humanitarian relief, enhance environmental analysis, foster economic development, support community planning and development, and support health and education-related activities, among other things.

The association’s July/August 2003 newsletter characterized GISCorps – which was called the GeoCorps then – as being modeled on the Peace Corps and the Geek Corps. “The GeoCorps will provide a vehicle for GIS professionals from the United States to visit communities around the world and work side-by-side with colleagues who are still exploring the world of GIS,” the newsletter reads.

During the tsunami disaster in Asia, she said GISCorps sent six volunteers to help efforts in Indonesia, while seven volunteers assisted with efforts from the United States.

But when Hurricane Katrina roared into the Gulf Coast, Elhami was immediately contacted to send experienced GIS professionals with various types of expertise to aid in the recovery and rescue efforts. Through the GISCorps’ Web site, volunteers can sign up and provide their work experience and history.

Working from her office, but using vacation days, Elhami said she sorted through more than 250 résumés in two days and started making calls. She called volunteers from California to New York. Volunteers were given only 24 hours’ notice and paid their own way to get to Mississippi and help emergency managers there.

“One of the most amazing things is how much people cared,” she said, adding that hundreds more volunteers have signed up with the corps.

GISCorps has sent 33 volunteers in four deployments to Mississippi and Louisiana. Volunteers stay, on average, up to 10 days there.

Talbot Brooks, a Delta State University professor who was coordinating GIS efforts in Mississippi for nearly two weeks after the hurricane, said he couldn’t have done it without the help of the GISCorps.

GISCorps posted brief responses from volunteers about their experience on URISA’s Web site and some provided longer accounts.

“It is extremely gratifying to be able to apply my experience and professional skills to help in a national emergency,” Ray DeLeon, a volunteer from San Jose, Calif., said on URISA’s Web site. “GIS professionals understand the benefits of a GIS system with good resources and valid data. Building, analyzing, supporting and delivering this data are all essential and vital parts of being a GISCorps volunteer.”

Elhami said there will be multiple sessions in URISA’s upcoming conference to discuss the volunteers’ experiences in the Gulf Coast region. She added that the group will also examine ways to improve the corps by collaborating with groups such as the Geospatial Information Technology Association.

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