Eye in the Sky

GIS technology helps remote islands cope with natural disasters.

by / September 24, 2002
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
islands," Buika said. "We've created lots of problems in our cities and, with this technology, we can present solutions."

Using GIS maps of various proposals helps avoid misunderstanding, he said. "It's had tremendous impact on the [Maui] City Council. Just like a county's general plan, now there is a digital general plan."

Practical Efficiency
In Maui, maps and high-resolution images from PDC help the island cost-effectively assess the impact of growth, perform regional planning and prepare for the unexpected.

Saving money is a vital concern, given the current economic downturn, said Bill Medeiros, GIS manager for Maui County. "The economy has been tough since the Gulf War, and our economy is tourist-driven," he said. Using information from PDC has helped the jurisdiction operate more efficiently.

"We recently had an outbreak of Dengue fever," Medeiros explained. "With GIS from the Pacific Disaster Center and our own resources we were able to track the mosquito and focus our efforts where they were needed. The epidemic went away. But, GIS didn't take over the project. It was a tool."

Medeiros also agrees that visuals provided by GIS data facilitate political deliberations. "It takes some of the contention out if we can show the community the factual data, like aerial photos of property, and have them focus on the issue and not argue over details," he said. Recently, GIS images helped Maui planners identify historic rock walls located within an area slated for development.

GIS maps also are used to create a baseline assessment tool to project the impact - economic and physical - that natural events might have on a community. Estimates of the extent and location of potential damage can help first responders such as civil defense, FEMA and Red Cross workers prepare for a variety of disasters.

On populated islands like Oahu, Maui and Kauai, GIS modeling might address issues such as lost tourism dollars and infrastructure damage. But for small islands isolated from the business of the 21st century, the threats lean toward saltwater inundating the land and ruining farmers' crops, or high winds destroying simply constructed homes.

GIS weather tracking can be a vital tool for island populations, where climate conditions can have a huge impact on livelihoods and survival.

"El Nino in the states is rain; on the islands it's drought," Buika said. "There is no water to replenished aquifers and people have to scramble. These are very fragile ecosystems. Man wasn't meant to live out there. People there depend upon outside assistance."

An Active Role
The PDC also plays a role in managing active emergencies.

"We have the people and tools in place at State Civil Defense in Oahu," Buika said. "During events - whether real or exercises - we will have our people providing information on road closures and shelters and such."

With homeland defense topping the agendas of many government leaders, PDC has begun offering systems to detect and model potential bio-terrorism attacks. At the same time, the organization is addressing humanitarian concerns resulting from the war on terrorism.

Working with other groups, PDC developed an international Web site for dynamic geo-spatial information that supports relief efforts in Afghanistan. Buika said that relief workers, unfamiliar with the country's rugged terrain, may access detailed maps of roads and pathways leading to isolated camps.

Over Hawaii, under more idyllic conditions, PDC's technology can provide images of the islands from distant space that capture amazing detail. "You can see divots on the golf course," Buika joked. "You can see whales breaching off the shore."
Darby Patterson Editor in Chief