How GIS Can Help Communities Prepare for Disaster (Industry Perspective)

While technology can't prevent disasters, it can help communities be better prepared to handle them when they arise.

by Ryan Lanclos, Esri / September 18, 2017
An American flag is torn as Hurricane Irma passes through Naples, Fla., Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017. AP/David Goldman

September is National Preparedness Month, and given the September we have been having with back-to-back hurricanes and raging wildfires, this designation is especially timely. Although hurricane season begins in June and peak wildfire season is typically early July, September is often an apex in the disaster realm. While technology can’t prevent natural disasters, it builds powerful preparedness and response tools; in particular, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), commonly referred to as “mapping,” creates critical tools that provide a vital function for preparedness. Any community can increase their preparedness by following a few simple steps before a disaster comes calling.

First, it is important to know your risks. Communities need to know, and make sure their citizens know, which areas are at risk for disasters. By mapping and analyzing your hazards in the community, you can begin to prioritize where to begin preparations before the disaster strikes. This means taking action at both the government and citizen levels.

Take the recent flooding in Houston from Hurricane Harvey — many of those residences and businesses were not aware that they are located in or near a potential flood zone. The county of San Diego, Calif., has been taking a proactive approach to this issue, helping citizens understand their personal risk and promote preparedness in the community. The county developed a tool called “Know Your Hazards,” an interactive map lets people enter their specific address to see the level of risk they face for earthquakes, flooding, tsunamis and wildfires — hazards specific to their geographic location. Because most hazards San Diego faces are without warning, the reality is that citizens there likely will have less than 15 minutes to evacuate in an emergency situation.

By knowing their hazard risk, residents can be better prepared. Any community can create a tool like this, with an easy-to-use interface that encourages every citizen to access and use the tool on their computer or mobile device. A simple tool that provides a powerful dose of awareness goes a long way in helping increase preparedness.

Second, communities need to make their evacuation routes and zones easily available to the public. With this information, people living in at-risk areas can develop a personal evacuation plan well in advance of the disaster. When an evacuation order is issued, people will know when to get out based on their location, and they will be familiar with their directed route out of harm’s way. Even before Hurricane Irma’s definitive path was identified, the Florida Division of Emergency Management put out a map that provided information on evacuation routes and zones so that the public could be better informed as early as possible.

Third, communities need to prepare their data just like they prepare other critical systems, data that is critical to understanding impact and supporting collaboration during a disaster. Esri, for example, has a Disaster Response Program that provides free disaster support for any organization affected by a disaster or crisis. This can help prepare a few common data feeds that are immediately needed in the event of a disaster, such as: traffic data (road closures and congestion); weather and storm tracks; precipitation forecast and accumulation amounts; and flood gauges.

It is important to bear in mind that no response effort occurs in a silo, especially during large events like Harvey and Irma where mutual aid from outside agencies will be required to respond and recover. To be effective, multiple agencies and organizations need access to this vital data to make critical decisions that can save lives and property. Before a disaster, developing a well-thought-out method of sharing this data will help facilitate a productive collaboration during response.

Social media feeds are another key source of information. During Hurricane Harvey, the crowdsourced information gleaned from social media sites such as Facebook and Snapchat were extremely important for rescue operations. These sources also helped provide a better understanding of the rapidly evolving impact of the flooding across the city, where some areas were underwater while others remained dry. Readying access to information such as this is an important preparedness step that some communities may not have considered. Combined with the data mentioned previously, first responders will have better situational awareness to coordinate response efforts.

Fourth, it is important to know where your assets and resources are. This means mapping not only your resource locations as they are deployed for response and recovery, but also mapping shelter locations, medicine caches, food banks, etc. Know the location of these assets and release information on points of distribution for drinking water, food and other resources to the public when possible. This information is critical, and for vulnerable populations, which rely on certain medications or medical treatments in their daily life, helping them to know where necessary resources are located could be the difference between life and death.

For instance, before a storm hits, the organization Direct Relief uses demographic information to analyze different factors that can contribute to populations being more vulnerable to disasters. For example, Direct Relief recognizes that in extreme weather disasters such as Harvey, the heaviest price is usually borne by the most vulnerable communities because lower income areas within cities are often located in areas with higher flood risk. Before Harvey made landfall in Texas, Direct Relief created a map that showed exactly where these vulnerable areas were located in Houston, enabling informed decisions to be made as to how to best help these citizens.

The old adage goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure;” when it comes to preparedness, an ounce of preparation allows response teams to recapture a pound of time when every second counts. Understanding the “where” factor is key to preparedness.

Ryan Lanclos is Esri’s public safety industry team lead where he is responsible for coordinating initiatives across emergency management, fire and EMS, law enforcement and national security, and emergency call taking and dispatch. Previously Ryan served as Missouri’s first state geographic information officer (GIO) and GIS lead for the Governor’s Homeland Security Advisory Council; and he provided county-wide GIS strategic planning and implementation for Montgomery County, Texas, in the Houston area. Most recently, he served as director of state and local government at the nonprofit National Alliance for Public Safety GIS (NAPSG) Foundation.