Typhoons, volcanoes, tsunamis and other natural phenomena can boil up at any moment and hit islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans, attacking them with a deadly vengeance.

To alert residents of these vulnerable islands to potential danger, the Pacific Disaster Center (PDC), a federally funded nonprofit organization that works closely with state and local governments, uses geo-spatial information and mapping. These tools equip the PDC to warn island residents of approaching natural disasters and manage their aftermath. Located on Maui, Hawaii, the PDC's 45-member staff watches the islands in more than 1.5 million square miles of territory that includes Japan, Australia, Singapore and Alaska.

Island populations present special challenges for emergency response personnel, said James Buika, director of customer application support and training for the PDC. Streets and street addresses are rare in some areas, so first responders rely on GIS maps to direct them to people who may be in danger. For example, GIS images can guide emergency workers to homes that would otherwise be hidden from view by showing tin roofs buried beneath jungle foliage.

"The islands are isolated and have limited resources," Buika said. "This is an attempt to mitigate some of the problems. Everything in a disaster is spatially related." The graphic nature of maps also creates a universal language that overcomes the communication barriers and high illiteracy rates that characterize some island populations, he added.

Timely Data

The PDC's Web site tracks storm movements using satellite imagery from government and commercial sources. The site is updated every minute and new weather events are continually posted by organizations accessing the service, according to Ken Burton, the PDC's technical lead for information systems development. The Java-based service uses ESRI's ARC/IMS GIS software running on a Sun server.

"You have to belong to an organization and have special privileges to post to the site," Burton explained. Typical users are state and local governments, federal agencies, and avid weather watchers. Tapping this resource, weather-watchers can track storms brewing throughout the vast region and, if necessary, issue advance warnings of events from tropical cyclones to volcanic eruptions. The Web site also permits users to post information, send messages, write situation reports and access other resources.

The PDC database includes high-resolution aerial photography, current GIS/vector information and Digital Raster graphics that cover activity in Hawaii and the Pacific-Indian Ocean regions. The site allows registered users to submit queries, collaborate and customize tools within the application.

Along with information submitted by authorized users, the site contains data from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Joint Typhoon Warning Center, NASA and National Weather Service.

The PDC also focuses its considerable GIS resources on risk assessment. Buika said the technology is valuable for helping local governments make long-range planning decisions. "We have the critical mass to really look at risk assessment and vulnerability assessment for local communities and regional assessments as well, so people can understand what the hazards really are," he said. "We can provide enough science and engineering information at the detail level for decision-makers to have all the information they need."

For instance, GIS maps can illustrate how a tsunami wave might "bounce" around an island before receding. "It is one thing to talk about what might happen," Buika said. "But when it does happen there can be death and destruction. With our modeling program, we can say how many casualties there might be, how many people will be homeless or in need of shelter, which hospitals could be out because of [poor] structural integrity. It is a loss-estimation model, so that planners will have a very good understanding of the scope of an event."

GIS maps provide valuable insight into other matters, as well. "There are lots of growth issues with

Darby Patterson  |  Editor in Chief