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How GIS — and you — can aid in disaster response

January 10, 2018  - By
Image: GPS World

Whether you are on the helping end of a disaster aiding in the rescue and recovery, or on the receiving end being aided, GIS is supercharging the rescue efforts.

How can I help you if I don’t know where you are?

Hurricane Harvey hits. The storm was worsening. Winds were sustained at over 120 mph. Landfall of Hurricane Harvey was expected in 48 hours. Worse, the storm was forecast to stall once overland creating the single worst rain event in United States history.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott  encouraged people to evacuate, especially those in low lying areas. Mayor Turner had only hours to decide the possible fate of millions. Making the call not to evacuate a category 4 hurricane approaching the city could be political suicide. Consider the fallout after Hurricane Katrina. The models clearly showed the extent of flooding and how many people would be trapped in their cars on flooded roads.

“You cannot put 6.5 million people on the road,” said Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner. The mayor’s ultimate decision not to issue an evacuation declaration was based on geospatial models, and as devastating as they were, it showed a better outcome if everyone stocked up, stayed put, and helped each other out after the storm. At least by staying home we will know where people are after the storm.

Gov. Abbott fully mobilized the National Guard and another 30 state agencies responded to the crisis. U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) calls to action went out to the Coast Guard and volunteer organizations. Small boats, raised axel trucks and Vietnam-era looking personnel carriers were brought in for support, along with helicopters, drones and search and rescue airplanes.

First responders were issued full body waders and foul weather gear. Thousands of hypothermia blankets were stockpiled and cargo trucks carrying food, water and cots headed south. Volunteers from the Cajun Navy, Team Rubicon, the Red Cross, Open Street Maps, Samaritan’s Purse and others positioned their able-bodied forces along the periphery of the storm’s path ready to move in as soon as given the word.

Thursday afternoon the winds and rains began getting increasingly worse. Darkness fell and by 10 p.m. the eye of the storm had made landfall. Rivers and streams began overflowing due in part to the storm surge moving waters upstream. Streets no longer drained the waters. The flooding continued to rise.

Tremendous thermodynamic forces. Hurricanes aren’t a single, solid storm, though they may look like it from satellite imagery. They are enormous atmospheric depressions like a hole formed in the sky and air masses from thousands of miles around rush in to fill the void. These converging air masses create immense thermodynamic forces extending outward from a central vortex in long sweeping radial bands like blades of an enormous turbine.

A hurricane is the cumulative fury of these destructive forces storm after storm after in rapid succession. Winds increase and decrease as the radial bands pass overhead becoming stronger and more constant as the eye approaches. Every plank, nail and screw is tested. Immense gusts like giant hammers breaks away loose thing. Strains of timber and steel shriek in the wind. In seconds sounds of groaning trees and the air fills with flying debris. Rain comes down in torrents.

But in between these spiral bands it slows, sometimes stopping all together, even sunshine or moonlight might break through, but to believe the storm is over would be wrong — maybe dead wrong. Another band will sweep in with gusting, howling wind, thick, heavy clouds and dark skies, and rain, more and more rain, and the rising waters turning into gushing floods. Moments of endless terror turn into hours, the waters rising higher ever higher.

Finally, 49 inches of rain and three days later the storm ended moving offshore. Its destruction shut down the fourth largest city in the United States.

“…Texans have suffered a great hardship, their warmth and resiliency is truly inspiring,” said Gov. Abbott. The overwhelming willingness of people and organizations to help once the storm passed brought its own challenges. A convergence of rescue and recovery teams began.

Leaders needed. It was obvious a coordinated effort needed to happen. Volunteers and organizations needed to work in unison. FEMA had to establish that order. The coordination center was formed, not unlike other disasters, but this time another dimension was added to it. FEMA was aware of social media’s ability to positively impact rescue operations tapping into briefly during Superstorm Sandy, the last large scale disaster to hit the United States, but FEMA lacked the necessary skills and expertise to capitalize on the technology.

It is times like these that the greatest of all resources is realized. When asked what is the greatest asset, the answers most often given are manpower, money, equipment or supplies; however, even if there are plenty of the above, it is quickly realized the greatest resource is leadership. In times of crises, normal authority is laid aside and given to those who can bring order to the chaos.

Christopher Vaughn, the geospatial information officer for FEMA, and Adrian Gardner, the chief information officer for FEMA, were those individuals stepping up to the task at hand. They understood getting better data faster and putting it into geospatial context held the answer. Once done that would be the foundational layer. All the other elements could then be added, like imagery, lots and lots of imagery, both before and after; and then overlay crowdsourced data.

Vaughn, working with his counterparts in the Department of Homeland Security, brought in Homeland Infrastructure Foundation Level Data (HIFLD) layers, along with the Civil Air Patrol and DigitalGlobe’s Open Data Program. Launched in 2017, the program provides before and after imagery. Vaughn understood that the citizen-as-a-censor model provided raw, real-time and relevant information. It had to be tapped into to get control of the rescue operations.

Sophia Liu, Ph.D., an Innovation Specialist and expert in crowdsource efforts was brought in from the United States Geographic Survey (USGS). Liu was the key to unlocking the crowd. She shared her greatest challenge was the misconceptions around the use of social media and an apprehension to using it without proper approvals from public relations. It took some convincing to change these mindsets.

What helped tip the scales in her favor was Hurricane Irma coming right on the heels of Hurricane Harvey and then Hurricane Maria. The disasters were coming in way too fast and the detractors were drowned out by the need for information. Once they saw the value of crowdsourcing, there was little resistance.

Challenges in Puerto Rico. The results spoke for themselves. In Puerto Rico, within only a few weeks of Hurricane Maria’s devastation, 1.4 million homes were analyzed for damage and 24,000 miles of roads were digitized through volunteer groups like GIS Corps and OpenStreetMaps.

One of the greatest challenges in Puerto Rico was the lack of street addresses. That is more common than one might realize. In many parts of the world there is no established address system and locations are more or less oriented to significant landmarks. It is difficult for Americans to understand, but in other cultures generations of families grow up in the same neighborhoods. Everyone knows everyone else. Location is personal. In the case of disasters this poses a huge challenge, especially when roads and landmarks are destroyed, and people have evacuated.

The company What3Words (W3W) is tackling this issue. W3W works uses a pixelated Earth system of 3 meter by 3 meter squares. Each grid can be defined by a set of three words. As I write this I am sitting in bump.cans.dome.

W3W does away with traditional numerical latitude and longitude. It works in any language, in fact, eight countries have partnered with W3W as either the nation’s official addressing system or an alternate system, and the United Nations has it among their disaster reporting tools. Art Kalinski, the former writer of this column wrote an article last year about W3W, what3words: The geospatial advancement of the year?

In Puerto Rico, since there aren’t addresses except in urban areas, the remainder of the island had to be geospatially configured to communicate “where” something was located. Digitizing Puerto Rico is a huge geospatial effort that would take years through normal government protocols and cost millions of dollars.

Instead, by enlisting the support of the crowd, it was accomplished in weeks, proving the power if crowdsourcing operations.

Crowdsourcing to the rescue. The power of the crowd was unlocked even more by using geoforms for filling out damage reports like bridge assessments, damaged roads, debris removal, etc. This allowed navigation apps to route around impassable areas saving time and ultimately lives. No more sending a rescue vehicle out only to find it can’t access the area because a tree is down, a bridge is collapsed, or flood waters are too high. Those delivering food could do so to where the people were.

Interactive, real-time, geospatial, command and control forever changed dispatching. Instead of waiting for teams to return before retasking them with new assignments dispatching could be of done on the fly as survivors were identified. The nearest rescue craft with available space could be routed to the exact location.

GIS allowed dispatchers to see where all the rescue teams were and how many survivors they had onboard and how many more they could take on. Data about each survivor was recorded allowing preparations for the arrival of anyone with special needs and the person’s information could immediately show up on a notification board that they had been found and rescued, important for family and friends to know.

The information also helps with forecasting needs of shelters and the reporting of numbers to those in operational authority.

Daily coordination calls were conducted over a variety of platforms with all interested and active participants. Important information was posted on a shared cloud drive. Slack, the peer to peer online collaboration platform was used so FEMA and the various groups were able to collaborate and keep the three different hurricane rescue operations segregated.

Recovery continues. The recovery efforts continue in Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. In efforts to increase the attention GIS played in mitigating damage from these disasters and the value of crowdsourced information FEMA hosted several events. The final event was held on Saturday, October 21, 2017. It was information about the situation on the ground in the multiple locations and the ongoing operations. It was also a celebration of the successes achieved during these crises; and, a tinge of sadness marked the event bringing to a close to some great working relationships.

If you are interested, there are still ways to get involved no matter what your skillset or expertise. If you have a desire to help, there are opportunities either on scene in the theater of operation, or remotely working from your computer at home. Check with the organizations mentioned below. Even a couple hours of your time can help.

What GIS offers next. GIS in the future of disaster response will make greater use of emerging technologies. Drones will fly preprogrammed paths ahead of a disaster if given enough time, and the imagery and the drone’s flight path will be stored. Then, immediately after the event passes drones will fly the same programmed path capturing imagery with the exact oblique and nadir angles as the original dataset.

Change detection analysis can then be used to find the exact locations of change. This method will become increasingly valuable using high resolution 3D imagery point clouds and used in a change detection system.

Geospatial artificial intelligence systems will identify the areas of greatest damage and assist by directing other resources such as mobile data signals to direct rescue operations towards possible survivors even using the last reported mobile data signal. It can direct human analysts to those specific areas that are inconclusive or require manual verification. This will increase analysis from several weeks to several days.

That is in the future, the near future, perhaps next year’s hurricane season, or tornado season, or snowstorms this winter.

This year, in total, there were 10 Atlantic hurricanes resulting in 431 deaths and an estimated $3.17 billion in damage; which by comparison, is 1/10th the number of casualties from Hurricane Katrina yet nearly twice the level of damage. It just so happens, I went through Hurricane Katrina living along the coast in Bay Saint Louis, Missouri, at the time where the eye the storm passed over. I tried to evacuate but being caught in a 13 hour traffic jam I was unable to outrun the storm. I personally experienced a category 4 hurricane. You may have picked that up in the opening of this article. Those experiences were very real. You might have also picked up my meteorological background from my days in the U.S Navy as a weather analyst.

By the end of 2017, more than hurricanes had inflicted damage. Wildfires in the western U.S. killed another 36 people and destroyed 6,000 buildings. Now, with winter upon us, there will be snowstorms, and GIS will help with those recovery efforts as well.

We are lucky to live in this day and age. Whether you are on the helping end of a disaster aiding in rescue and recovery, or on the receiving end being aided, GIS is supercharging the rescue efforts.

Disaster response agencies and support groups

Most of the above groups support all types of disaster response efforts and many do so throughout all regions of the world.