How a geospatial leader combats natural disasters

May 9, 2018  - By

All of us aspire. It is the voice in our heart — our calling, the bud of our true self wanting to bloom. In each of us a seed is planted and when that seed begins to prosper another shoot springs forth. It is how we know we are on the right path. As we approach our true purpose goals and accomplishments align, there is clarity of vision, resistance wanes, and a virtuous cycle lifts us up.

But what if that calling was having every disaster that befalls a nation laid at your feet? Who then among us would willingly take on so great a burden? You might imagine anyone wanting to do so must first pass beneath a door upon which are inscribed the words, “Only the strong of heart may pass and they too shall be challenged.”

Who would be brave enough to enter knowing the lament and sorrow of a nation would be their sustenance? And yet, there is one who willingly accepted the call. He is a giant, forged, not born, in the fires of calamity, chaos and crisis.

But who within the geospatial community would bear such a heavy labor? Would it not be Christopher Vaughan, geospatial information officer (GIO) of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA)? He is the first person to hold the GIO position for FEMA.

I had the great honor to speak with him recently as he enters his eighth year at FEMA. Being the first GIO meant there was lots of work to do. The geospatial infrastructure for FEMA had to be developed and integrated into the operational core. Operational units needed training to use GIS and learn to become proficient with it. It is a process that could not happen overnight.

There was also the cultural mindset to overcome whenever new technologies enter the workplace, and, no matter how valuable GIS has proven to be there is always resistance to change. These were barriers Chris had to deal with while at the same time doing what he came to FEMA to do — support emergency management operations as disasters occurred; and, as you will see, there is never a reprieve from the whims of Mother Nature. Her wrath is unquenching, unceasing and unrestrained.

Chris became the FEMA GIO in May 2010, after the Haiti Earthquake, arguably one of the worst humanitarian crises in the northwestern hemisphere. Death tolls reached 220,000 according to FEMA’s Earthquake Response Report (FEMA 2010)[1] and over 1.1 million people were displaced; plus, making matters worse, a cholera epidemic broke out during the earthquake recovery efforts. That was the job he walked into.

Even though Haiti is not a responsibility of the United States, it is in U.S. interests to help stabilize the region and provide goodwill to our neighbors. This put Chris up close and personal with the devastation, challenges and aftermath. Several lessons emerged from the Haiti Earthquake which continues to shape Chris’s view of Disaster Response and Recovery (DR&R) to this day, one of the most prominent being, crisis mapping, using crowdsource efforts involving a worldwide audience.

Chris shares that the International Conference of Crisis Mappers held a meeting in 2010 right after the earthquake, “There were about 100 to 150 people from all over the world. I still run in circles with about 40 to 50 of those folks. It was sort of like a Who’s Who of disaster operations.” International volunteers working remotely mapped Haiti in the aftermath so well that Craig Fugate, the FEMA Administrator at the time, recognized Crisis Mappers as having created, “the most comprehensive and up-to-date map available.” Chris would later draw upon this lesson in future emergency management operations.

The Haiti Earthquake stretched FEMA’s responsibilities beyond U.S borders and Chris understood that FEMA needed to prepare for operations in neighboring countries if needed. Chris will most likely be involved in providing much of the geospatial support for those efforts because of FEMA’s advanced technical capabilities and its organizational strength.

That first year was daunting, but there is no respite from the storm, so to speak, and within one year, Chris was faced with the most active tornado season on record. Over 360 tornados touched down in April over a three day period killing a total of 348 people in 21 states in what has been named the 2011 Super Outbreak. Not a month later, Chris was met with yet another defining moment in his career.

On Saturday, May 21, 2011 a storm system developed over the Midwest. Local news reported two tornados had touched down in Kansas — nothing unusual, but storms in the Midwest always cause concern. The next day, Sunday, May 22, 2011, there was more tornado activity. Weather warnings covered the map from the Great Lakes to Texas. Several tornados touched down throughout the day, but for all appearances by late afternoon it looked less severe than the previous month’s outbreak.

Early that evening, the phone calls began and didn’t stop coming in. Reports were that a tornado had devastated Joplin, Missouri. Details were scarce. Communications into Joplin were down. Chris couldn’t get any answers. He needed a clear picture. Where did the tornado touch down? What was the tornado’s track? How big was it? How many people were missing? Where was the damage? What was damaged? Who needs support? Who can be brought in to provide that support? News poured in getting worse with each successive call.

“I needed that GIS perspective so I could see. It was like a surgical knife went right through this town and in that boundary were two nursing homes, one school, a fire station and a hospital. That is what GIS brings to the fight – clarity and context. I didn’t have that.”

The Joplin Tornado turned out to be the deadliest in over 60 years and the most expensive in U.S. history. It was nearly one mile wide and almost 22 miles long killing 161 people. “Joplin, Missouri will always color me for the rest of my career, in how I approach Disaster Response and Recovery Operations, not knowing how big that event really was until we got our arms wrapped around it. We struggled for a long time with just how big that storm path was. We were waiting days on those tornado tracks. We’ve gotten a lot faster. We are down to hours now. The storm prediction center has done some amazing things. They’ve got a whole innovation lab using radar to determine where the tornado touched down. It’s not perfect but it’s far better than where we were.”

The year of 2011 was the worst tornado season in U.S. history. In all, there were 1,697 tornados reported throughout the U.S., the Joplin Tornado being the most significant. Out of that crisis social media evolved as a tool for DR&R operations. This would further develop Chris’s vision for FEMA.

Chris calls 2011 his most difficult year. He has dealt with many of the most infamous events in his eight years as the GIO. Following is a short list:

  • the Mississippi River flooding (2010),
  • Hurricane Irene (2011),
  • the tornado Super Outbreak (2011),
  • the Joplin Tornado (2011),
  • Super Storm Sandy (2012),
  • The Yarnell Fires (2013),
  • Moore Oklahoma Tornado (2013),
  • the Oso mudslide (2014),
  • the Northern California wildfires (2017),
  • blizzards throughout the U.S. (almost every year)

and most recently

  • Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria (2017).

In fact, in total, since Chris became the GIO, FEMA has declared 1,003 disasters. On average, that is one declared disaster every three days, and disasters last for weeks, and months, and sometimes years, so these have compiling effects.

Dealing with so many disasters, so often, in so short a period of time, Chris has developed a disaster consciousness as he discusses, “There are obviously natural cycles. There is a rhythm to it all. We are pretty accustomed to the rhythm. The snow pack begets the flood season. We are watching the snows and where they build-up because that leads into the flood plains, or drought as the case may be. Our timelines span months. So, we watch El Niño and La Niña. April and May bring the tornados. Then that slides right into wildfire season. But, you never know when that earthquake is going to hit.”

Even with all the real disasters taking place FEMA runs exercises preparing for those rare, cataclysmic events happening once every several hundred years. It’s been over 100 years since a major cataclysmic event of that magnitude has occurred. Scientists predict we are due for one.

Yellowstone, for example, is a huge volcanic caldera. It’s been quiet for hundreds of years even though it remains very active.

The New Madrid seismic zone is also an area of concern. It has been over 200 years since a major event occurred in this area. In 2008 FEMA wrote an in-depth report on the New Madrid and has been conducting exercises on the region ever since.

USGS just released a report focusing attention on the Hayward Fault near Oakland, CA which includes videos of ground shaking simulations (USGS 2018) . The USGS study is not forecasting an event is imminent, but it is a prediction that a 72% chance of a 6.7+ magnitude earthquake will happen in the area within the next 25 years.

“I can promise you this,” says Chris. “If we aren’t involved in a big event we are preparing for one. We are always preparing for the next big one. Right now we are laser focused on earthquake planning. A lot of our time is spent thinking about the worst case scenarios. We’re talking about a Cascadia Subduction event. What would happen if a New Madrid seismic zone event occurred and how would we move that much logistics and people and resources? Where would we put limited resources to affect the most good? We can plan for those types of events. We know where the major faults are. We rely on our partners like USGS to give us their risk assessments of where we should be paying attention. We haven’t had a catastrophic event like that in over 100 years. Getting the emergency management community to think in those terms is probably in the neighborhood of 100,000 people dead. That is a huge task at that scale. That is why we are training.”

FEMA just released their 2018-2022 Strategic Plan and the three key goals are to

  1. Build a Culture of Preparedness,
  2. Ready the Nation for Catastrophic Disasters, and
  3. Reduce the Complexity of FEMA.

FEMA’s exercises are building a culture of preparedness, but for the strategic plan to work FEMA has to engage the population. DHS has a volunteer force called the Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) and all interested citizens are encouraged to join. There is most likely one in your area. (Learn more and find out how to get engaged).

CERT is an area Chris would like to tap into. “I think organizations like CERT, the National Map Corps, and other large volunteer based groups that are geographically dispersed are who we need to tap into for crowdsourcing. We are looking at ways to harness this collective power. They are there for a reason. They want to be part of the conversation. So, we want to engage them and are figuring out ways to pull them into our efforts.”

Shortly after the interview with Chris, FEMA announced the 2018 National Level Exercise (NLE) will be incorporating CERT in preparation for the upcoming hurricane season. By the time this article is published the event will have passed, but plan ahead for next year and register for CERT. The information on the website will benefit you, your family and your community. You might even see me there as I will be getting involved too. In the future, those with special skills such as remote sensing, GIS and data science might develop into a specialized corps of volunteers as FEMA works more closely with CERT.

There are some successes Chris celebrates. One of those is the advancements in dealing with floods. Chris states, “We were getting our tails handed to us on floods. No one could really figure out floods. Now, I feel like we’ve got a good handle on it. It was to the point where they’ve stood up a new National Water Center in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, with a joint venture between U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, NOAA, FEMA, and I am sure USGS is involved. I would put it on the same scale as the National Hurricane Center. It is building out the National Water Model and it will tell the risk for a given area and provide information on where the flood is actually occurring.”

Another success Chris is excited to talk about is the geospatially enabled alert system called the Integrated Public Alert Warning System (IPAWS) that FEMA created. In Chris’s words, “it is an elaborate community where NOAA, the National Weather Service, the state, county and local level feed information into the system and it alerts people in specific areas using geofencing. There is a new REST API the geo-community can use to embed the information into webpages.”

The Making a Difference Award given by Esri. (Photo: Esri)

The Making a Difference Award given by Esri. (Photo: FEMA)

Chris is building a legacy in disaster recovery and response by harnessing the power of the crowd. It first happened with the Haiti Earthquake. It was further developed during the Joplin Tornado, and it evolved further during Superstorm Sandy earning Chris and FEMA the Making a Difference Award from Esri in 2013.

Jack Dangermond presented the award, saying, “FEMA supports our nation during crises, and its leadership and staff at all levels work extremely hard to carry out that mission every day. We want to recognize their tremendous work during Sandy. The agency supplied intuitive mapping applications that allowed people to understand the emergency as it unfolded and to begin the process of rebuilding.”

Chris continues advancing the use of GIS in disaster operations and harnessing the power of crowdsourcing, most recently using it during the 2017 hurricane season for operations in Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

NOTE: January’s Geospatial Solutions article covers many of those advancements: How GIS and You can Aid In Disaster Response. This article is a follow-on to the January article.

When asked about the success of crowdsourcing efforts Chris shared his views, saying, “You’ve got all kinds of walks of life participating in this. Never before in the history of mankind have we had this speed of communication. I can conference call someone anywhere in the world and have no delay in our conversation. Look, we’ve always had millions of people sitting on the periphery. This is just the explosion of communication we are seeing. I mean, the internet has really only been in wide use for the last 20 years, so we’ve got to put things in perspective. Google Earth came out in 2005, the iPhone in 2007, ArcGIS Online in 2011. So, we’ve come so far in just the past 10 years… it’s really amazing.”

Building on lessons learned from engaging the crowd FEMA has an app that everyone needs to download to their smartphone. You can receive National Weather Service alerts, locate shelters, talk directly with FEMA, and upload pictures about where you are in the event of a disaster. It is an app providing information that can potentially save your life.

After speaking with Chris I left the conversation understanding the only thing bigger than Chris’s responsibility is his heart. Many times during the conversation he talked about ensuring FEMA was there for the most vulnerable populations and that the job of the GIO was to make operations more efficient and save time, because in disasters time saves lives.

Chris Vaughan is a giant in the geospatial world and worthy of the title. He has been forged by calamity, chaos and crisis; and, through it all, remains humble in service to those most in need. Harnessing the power of GIS and the crowd he has forever altered emergency management operations connecting the “Federal” to the “Individual.” He is a leader of the Geospatial community, both by title and by deed. Surely, people’s lives have been saved through Chris’s efforts and countless more will be. When we seek relief because some catastrophe has found its way to our door we can turn our hope towards FEMA that we might be rescued in our darkest hour thanks to the power of GIS and the vision of the FEMA GIO.

William H, Tewelow, GISP

Further information

If you would like to pad your resume FEMA has several free online courses that offer college credits. The courses which most pertain to readers of this article are IS-103: Geospatial Information Systems Specialist; IS-922: Applications of GIS for Emergency Management; IS-63.b: Geospatial Information Infrastructure (GII); IS-60.b: The Homeland Security Geospatial Concept-of-Operations (GeoCONOPS) for Planners and Decision Makers; IS-61.b: The Homeland Security Geospatial Concept-of-Operations (GeoCONOPS) In Depth; IS-62.b: The Homeland Security Geospatial Concept-of-Operations (GeoCONOPS) In Use; and, IS-42: Social Media in Emergency Management. Visit for more information on these courses. If you are a GISP this will afford opportunities to earn points towards certification and renewal.

Information on FEMA’s text alert program

  • Subscribe to FEMA text: INFO to 43362
  • Locate open shelters text: SHELTER +Zip code to 43362
  • Locate Disaster Recovery Centers text: DRC +Zip code to 43362

FEMA’s U.S. Coast Guard Retiree to FEMA Reservist Initiative has nine GIS Specialist positions available: Salary ($15.82–23.69/hr) Position Description: The PLAN GIS Specialist (PLAN0001) conducts basic geo-processing, develops geospatial products, uses specialized geospatial software, operates and calibrates GPS units and mobile data collection devices, and supports customers as needed.

This article is tagged with and posted in GeoIntelligence Insider, Opinions

15 Comments on "How a geospatial leader combats natural disasters"

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  1. Enock Bett says:

    Its amazing how GEOSPATIAL INTELLIGENCE is transforming the world today.Its a technology if well appreciated will yield tremendous results.Nice article

    • Enock,

      Thank you, and yes, I absolutely agree. The science of “where” gives us context to almost everything we do. It is afterall one of the five W’s of intelligence.

      Thank you

  2. Enock Bett says:

    Its amazing how GEOSPATIAL INTELLIGENCE is transforming the world today.Its a technology if well appreciated will yield tremendous results.Nice article

    • Enock,

      Thank you, and yes, I absolutely agree. The science of “where” gives us context to almost everything we do. It is afterall one of the five W’s of intelligence.

      Thank you

  3. Ted Hodgson says:

    Good job Chris , keep up the utilisation of the emergency response work. Ted MilfOrd C.O.G.

  4. Ted Hodgson says:

    Good job Chris , keep up the utilisation of the emergency response work. Ted MilfOrd C.O.G.

  5. Ted,
    Thank you for reading.
    Chris is a great person doing some incredible work.

  6. Ted,
    Thank you for reading.
    Chris is a great person doing some incredible work.

  7. Ted,
    Thank you for reading.
    Chris is a great person doing some incredible work.