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