Miami-Dade builds disaster recovery apps

When Hurricane Wilma tore through southern Florida last October, one of the biggest challenges Miami residents faced was finding gas for their vehicles.

Judi Zito, Miami-Dade county’s chief information officer, said employees from the information technology department developed a geographic information system application in a couple of days that merged data about gas stations with information gleaned from calls to those stations to find out if they were open and what type of gas they had available.

County officials say they’ve developed several applications in the past year that they are putting in their toolkit for future disasters. Those applications can be brought out to respond to such events at any time.

Through the gas station application, agents staffing the county’s 311 Answer Center, which had been launched just a month earlier, were able to enter ZIP Codes and find available gas stations in response to motorist inquiries.

Officials could also map the locations of gas stations across the county to see which were located in areas that lacked electrical power and then respond by sending out portable generators. Zito said the stations’ overwhelming problem was lack of electricity to power their pumps rather than a lack of gas.

She said the Answer Center handled more than 500 calls in the two-day period before power was restored to most areas. Overall, the center fielded more than 150,000 calls in the days before and after Wilma hit.

The gas station application also helped county government employees, who needed to use their vehicles to assist with recovery efforts.

“What was happening was, as the week went on during recovery, people were calling saying, ‘I can’t get to work. I’m out of gas,’” Zito said. “People were literally driving back and forth for a number of days, and when they were out of gas, that was it. We had to do a number of things just to get people to report to work.”

The IT department also developed a debris removal application that allowed officials in the Department of Solid Waste Management to identify areas where removal activities have occurred on a daily basis. The application shows completed activities and scheduled ones through areas based on a grid pattern, down to a level of one-quarter of a square mile.

“If somebody calls up and complains, ‘There’s this pile of trash, and it’s been there for two weeks,’ or whatever, we can determine when they might be getting their [debris removed],” Zito said.

Or if a sweep already occurred in that area, county officials can see when another one is scheduled, she said. Officials can also view their progress in removing debris on a countywide basis. Zito said debris removal after a hurricane is a significant safety issue and also a political one because elected officials want to see progress.

Another program called Disaster Assistance Employees, developed before last year’s hurricane season, tracks county employees’ skills beyond their job requirements.

For example, the database can identify employees who are licensed forklift operators, speak foreign languages or have expressed an interest in assisting elderly residents in preparing for a hurricane. The application could also map employees’ addresses so they can be assigned to relief activities in areas close to their homes, she said.

The county has about 30,000 employees, most of whom can assist with operations outside their normal duties, Zito said.

Another application asks county residents to provide early damage assessments of their houses. Zito said they can phone the Answer Center or log onto the county’s Web site to provide that information, which is compared against a map showing the county’s own reconnaissance data. Residents choose from four basic categories, which range from minor damage to total destruction, she said.

“Someone may call and say, ‘Here’s my address, and I’m a three,’ and we log that information and get an early indicator of what areas of town were hit hardest,” Zito said.

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