Web extra: GIS aids the Coast Guard

Geographic information system experts give officers the coordinates they need to rescue people after Hurricane Katrina.

In helping the Coast Guard with their rescue operations in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, Talbot Brooks had to calculate – in minutes – the coordinates of people who were stranded on rooftops or elsewhere.

Brooks, director of Delta State University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Geospatial Information Technologies in Cleveland, Miss., assembled geographic information system experts to help with the rescue and recovery efforts.

For the Coast Guard, his team translated more than 100 street addresses into degrees, minutes and seconds required for helicopter and land-base rescues. For example, Brooks recalled one phone call handed to him at the emergency operations center.

A young man said he had just spoken to his mother, who was trapped in the water treatment facility in Waveland, Miss.

“And people were shouting, ‘Hurry she’s dying, she’s dying,’” Brooks said. “And that’s all the information we had.”

Brooks said they used a combination of vector data and aerial photographs of the area before the hurricane. They found the water treatment plant in the imagery and gave the latitude and longitude to the Coast Guard within seven minutes, he said.

He said he didn’t know whether the woman was saved, but he said GIS was the only way to locate her and other stranded people.

“Even if you looked up water services for Waveland in the public works directory, you’re still going to get some address in city hall,” he said. “You’re not going to get the physical address of that.”

GIS professionals from various Mississippi universities and the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association’s GISCorps volunteered to help Brooks with numerous tasks at the state’s emergency operations center in Jackson County.

The experts also created a missing persons database and plotted their last known locations on a map. At last count, they produced more than 400 search and rescue maps for first responders showing the last known location of more than 10,000 missing persons.

Additionally, they collected and mapped vital data such as power outages; cell tower and coverage areas; location of hazardous material, such as underground gas storage; location of wells, electrical substations and other critical infrastructure; and locations of shelter, food and water distribution points and capacities.

J.D. Overton, an ESRI technical marketing representative in St. Louis who volunteered with two colleagues for several days in Mississippi, said the company managed software and data requests and provided hardware.

At the company’s Redlands, Calif., headquarters, Overton’s colleagues set up a database server that ran in a Citrix environment so multiple users could access the data. He said the company’s ArcSDE product was used to allow access to large databases that included imagery and vector data.

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