Having information readily available before a disaster or storm can be invaluable for first responders and emergency managers tasked with organizing the response. The Florida Coastal Mapping project is an effort that combines data collection with disaster preparedness by collecting LIDAR data — which uses light detection to capture information — for coastal counties; running the data through a computerized model to estimate storm surge depths from hurricanes; and using the information to develop new regional evacuation plans.

In Florida, many regions’ hurricane evacuation studies haven’t been updated since the 1990s, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management’s (FDEM) website. The agency plans to use the new information gathered from the mapping project to refresh the State Regional Evacuation Studies by the end of the year.

“The State Regional Evacuation Studies will be used by every emergency management entity in Florida as the basis for developing evacuation and protective measure plans, shelter planning and identifying coastal high hazards zones,” FDEM spokeswoman Lauren McKeague wrote in an e-mail. “Additionally the studies will be used by all the state’s growth management agencies to identify impacts to public safety plans and to address growth management standards put in place by the Florida Legislature, including traffic and other future land use planning.”

The new LIDAR data will also be available to other agencies in need of quality land contour data, according to McKeague.

Betti Johnson, principal planner with the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, said the effort has provided the region with additional information to aid its evacuation planning. “We had looked at kind of the average hurricanes — average forward speed, average size. So we didn’t look at a Hurricane Dennis or a Hurricane Ike that were so much larger,” Johnson said. “Whereas in 2006, we had 735 hypothetical storms in our suite of storms that we looked at, this time we had 12,000. So there was a lot more information to incorporate.”

The more detailed information enlarged some of the region’s areas that are expected to be vulnerable to Category 4 and 5 hurricanes. The information has also been incorporated into the council’s public outreach efforts, she said.

The next step is for the local emergency managers to incorporate data from the mapping project into their planning. The information can be run through the Sea, Lake and Overland Surges from Hurricanes (SLOSH) computerized model that evaluates the threats from a hurricane storm surge and tells officials which areas need to be evacuated. SLOSH can use information from previous hurricanes or predicted hurricanes using information, including a storm's pressure, size, forward speed, forecast track as well as wind speeds and topographical data.

The studies have been funded with $26 million in general fund revenue as well as FEMA grants from the 2004-2005 hurricane season.

On Oct. 5, the West Florida Evacuation Study was presented to emergency managers in the region. The state has also started reviewing the South Florida transportation analysis, and the American Red Cross has begun reviewing the data collected with regard to the location of proposed evacuation shelters.