When planning this month’s cover story, we had no clue that a devastating earthquake and tsunami would strike Japan. But as it turns out, our feature on Miami’s comprehensive use of geospatial technology coincides with a stark reminder of the importance of emergency planning and disaster response.

As I write this, Japanese authorities and citizens are struggling to respond to multiple catastrophes triggered by the March 11 quake. The magnitude of the calamity prompted U.S. officials to call for our own nation to reassess its disaster readiness.

Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, told Voice of America that events in Japan highlight the need to improve U.S. disaster preparations.

“Japan has been considered the gold standard of earthquake preparedness because they have had repeated experience with earthquakes. But this earthquake registered 9.0 on the Richter scale,” Lieberman said. “We ask how well prepared is America for a catastrophe perhaps equal to that occurring now in Japan.”

Sophisticated mapping tools like GIS are fundamental resources for emergency planners, and our cover story focuses on a leader in these technologies: Florida’s Miami-Dade metropolitan area. The metro area — which includes 36 cities — is one of the most disaster-prone urban regions in the country, enduring hurricanes, floods and earthquakes.

Perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that Miami-Dade County makes broad use of GIS.

Miami-Dade’s GIS has 300 layers of data that are shared by the various agencies. Emergency managers can view more than 6,000 critical facilities, such as schools, fire, police, hazardous materials sites and hospitals within a specific vicinity. The system uses a long list of tools — Twitter, Bing Maps, hazardous plume modeling, live traffic, the U.S. National Grid and population estimates — all of which are viewable via a unified map interface.

Among the data used by Miami-Dade’s Department of Emergency Management are the locations of underground sewer and gas lines, evacuation centers — even the locations of consulate offices. Should a hurricane strike the Florida coast, the system could steer displaced residents to evacuation routes, as well as to distribution points for ice and water. In a widespread power outage, health officials could find residents who are dependent on electricity for their medical needs.

The scale of the tragedy in Japan is hard to grasp. As of press time, the death toll from the earthquake and tsunami is expected to exceed 18,000, and more than 400,000 people had been evacuated and were staying in shelters. On top of that, damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station seemingly teetered on the brink of meltdown.

Our hearts go out to the nation and its citizens. It’s a stark reminder that worst-case scenarios can happen. Communities must be ready with response plans — and hope they never need to use them.

Steve Towns  |  Executive Editor