Red Cross Finds Relief with First On-site GIS Project

One chapter's new program can save time,

by / February 28, 1999
The San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the American Red Cross and Autodesk have been working on a prototype GIS-based disaster recovery program (GISDRP) for the past two years. When completed, the application will link street-level data, demographics and earthquake-intensity projections for Northern California, and the Bay Area in particular.

"What we are trying to do with this," explained Bay Area Red Cross Disaster Director Greg O'Ryon, "is more efficiently match assistance to people's needs following an earthquake."

O'Ryon said the application will allow the Red Cross to place its facilities near people who most need help.

"It will also help us to more accurately guide the actions of emergency-response teams that go through neighborhoods affected by the quake and render assistance," he said. "If we can determine how many people are going to need assistance, we can mobilize the necessary resources in a timely fashion."

The core of the GIS program is AutoCAD Map, software that combines map creation, editing and basic GIS functions; and Autodesk MapGuide, a Web-based publishing tool with GIS capabilities for simple analysis, buffering and overlays. MapGuide can be used with a standard browser to look at maps and other spatial data on the Web and bring them into the user's PC.

Although still under development, GISDRP has the potential to link demographics, street-level data and digital orthophotos -- digitized aerial photographs corrected for distortion due to tilt and relief -- of almost any region, community or neighborhood in the United States. The opportunity to test that premise under actual conditions came in the wake of flooding in coastal Alabama following Hurricane Georges.

Field Debut

When O'Ryon was sent to Mobile, Ala., in September to direct disaster relief, he asked Autodesk GIS Development Manager Brad Sharp to bring the GISDRP. Although relief efforts were already under way, the system, once set up, produced maps and demographic data in greater detail and in considerably less time than would have been possible by drawing them from conventional data sources. It also enabled management directing the operation to match their services with community needs faster and with more accuracy. Although the American Red Cross has GIS capability at its national headquarters, this was the first time a chapter used such technology in the field.

Recovery Operations

There are three stages to Red Cross relief operations. In the emergency phase, people displaced by an event are brought into shelters and given food, clothing and medical assistance. In the recovery phase, the Red Cross sets up service centers to assist the displaced in finding temporary housing in hotels, motels or apartments. At this time, people can also apply for financial support to repair their homes. If damage claims are supported by the findings of damage-verifications teams, the Red Cross provides initial funds for that purpose. The final phase involves financial support and grants provided by various organizations and government agencies.

To respond with appropriate services and resources, Red Cross workers must, in the first few days, estimate as accurately as possible the impact of a disaster on surrounding communities. Excessive response results in waste, and inadequate response leaves needs unmet.

To avoid this, Red Cross directors must know the location, demographics, and extent of damage in different neighborhoods, and the number of families affected. According to O'Ryon, management also determines the degree of need based on the socioeconomic profiles of the communities involved. He said, however, that there is no criteria for Red Cross assistance. "It just turns out that those who have the least tend to be hit the hardest."

Before putting together outreach teams to go into the affected areas, management must know other factors as well. Neighborhoods with many elderly persons may require special medical resources. In areas with many infants and small children, other types of services and resources will be needed. Outreach teams may need interpreters; many victims in coastal Alabama spoke only Vietnamese.

Without highly detailed maps and accurate demographics, a director is forced to guess what and how much is required.

Other logistical problems requiring support data include housing and feeding hundreds of Red Cross specialists and field workers coming in from around the country, setting routes for trucks hauling emergency supplies and fund-raising. Workers need detailed maps, demographics and directions to locations, and phone numbers and contacts for chapter offices throughout the state.

Detailed Support Data

It was to provide support data for all these operations that Sharp and an Autodesk colleague, GIS specialist Hyman Wong, brought the GISDRP to the Red Cross field headquarters in Mobile. Using laptops, they logged on to the Web site of Geographic Data Technology (GDT), in Lebanon, N.H., and from MapSet extracted street-level data for Alabama's coastal counties. According to Sharp, GDT probably has the country's most accurate street-level data.

"Because we had the ability to get such detail, we were able to provide information that did not exist on the AAA paper maps the outreach teams were originally using," he said. "Instead of handing out large state maps with information not related to the event, we could provide them with an 8-by-11-inch map of the specific neighborhood they were going to work in."

From Claritas, a company in New York that maintains census information, Sharp and Wong downloaded demographic data for the same areas. Both companies contributed data to the effort.

"Once we had the street-level data and demographics," Sharp said, "we plugged in information provided by the Red Cross -- locations of various shelters, hotels, schools, armories, and the location and contact information for all the chapters in the state."

After initial setup, Sharp and Wong mainly produced maps for various support operations. According to Sharp, management first wanted maps for damage-assessment teams and for truckers who needed directions to delivery points. Four hundred Red Cross volunteers coming in from out of state also needed to know the location of the headquarters, and of the hotels and restaurants working with the Red Cross, and how to get to them.

Sharp said that the Red Cross didn't have access to the demographic information soon enough to use it in the first phase of the recovery.

"Ideally, if they had had this technology right at the beginning, Greg would have been able to pull up a map of Alabama, draw a circle around the southern region and query the system for a report on the demographics within that area," Sharp said. "It would have pulled up all that information for him. That's what we want to have available in the future." The Red Cross currently has access to limited demographic data from paper-based tabular reports generated in Washington, D.C.

O'Ryon pointed out, however, that the demographic data produced by Sharp and Wong were used later in the recovery effort.

"By looking at the demographics of the coastal areas that were affected, we were able to place our service centers in areas most heavily affected, where the residents, based on their socioeconomic situation, would probably be most in need," he said. "We managed to do that very effectively. Using this technology, I think we matched up our services and the community's needs a little more quickly and a little more purposefully than we would have in the past. The GISDRP was used to cover all of coastal Alabama, all the counties surrounding Mobile Bay, and we assisted about 4,000 families within those counties."

Fund-raising Facilitator

Creating a database of all Alabama chapters of the Red Cross and attaching it to a map of the state proved to be equally effective and time-saving. During an event of this scope, the Red Cross raises funds for the relief effort. Traditionally, the process involves going through a directory, looking up phone numbers, addresses and contact names associated with the chapters in each county, then calling them individually to get the names of companies and organizations the Red Cross can contact to ask for contributions to the relief effort. Alabama has about 70 chapters. With all of them in the database, fund raisers had only to click on an icon representing a chapter to bring up the information associated with it.

"If this technology is fully adopted," Sharp said, "all this information could be up and running for the first responders who go into devastated areas during the crisis stage, and for the secondary responders who provide the logistical support for them. That's the direction we're trying to go in."

O'Ryon agreed on the importance of the technology, but added that the GISDRP was still a local effort.

"I don't want to overemphasize how far we've taken it; this is very much a project just of our chapter. It's something we're very interested in because of our commitment to preparedness in the Bay Area," he said. "I don't want to say we're running all Red Cross relief operations from this application. On the other hand, we had a very good experience with it and can certainly see the potential of this in the future."

Bill McGarigle is a writer specializing in communications and information technology, based in Santa Cruz, Calif. Email