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GIS-Assisted Disaster Relief in 2013 and Beyond

A GIS expert from Esri talks about how the technology is fueling improved disaster response.

by / February 8, 2013

The northeast is still in the thick of Hurricane Sandy relief and damage remediation, even though the disaster itself took place in fall 2012. Local authorities used modern tools like social media and GIS technology to assist relief efforts during the event and its aftermath. But technology still has a role to play in the recovery efforts for this disaster, and future emergencies.

GIS mapping technology plays a crucial role in helping public-sector employees identify hard-hit areas. Russ Johnson, Esri’s director of global public safety, answered Government Technology’s questions about how GIS technology affects disaster relief in crises like Sandy, and how it may evolve in the future.

How are organizations using Esri technology in disasters?

The most powerful thing they can use it for is understanding where they have vulnerabilities based on historical events and raising the level of preparedness. But with that said, when something like Sandy hits, they often use it for identifying, first of all, what’s the impact or the parameter, and what is the damage associated with it.

One of the biggest problems that organizations have, particularly public safety, is, when we have this massive event, how do we allocate a finite amount of resources for rescue and recovery? What’s the protocol for doing that, how do we do it, where do we do it? One of the important roles GIS plays right up front is taking that damage perimeter, or information about where the impact is, and then bringing up layers of data regarding critical infrastructure. They can begin to see, in terms of priorities for life, property and natural resources, where are the key search and rescue areas, what are the key things we need to do to the infrastructure to get things back up and running again, and what natural resources do we need to preserve or protect or take action on? 

Then as the event unfolds, typically you start getting imagery, and imagery is very important because it begins to give you a full picture of what has happened. Imagery can be infused, imported into GIS technology and used as another data layer. You begin to combine several layers, imagery, critical infrastructure, demographics, the event data, maybe even some dynamic information such as real-time weather or real-time stream gauges, and you get this virtual picture of what has happened.

How much longer do you think Esri technology will be used for damage control and remediation efforts on recent disasters like Sandy?

In large events, the recovery sometimes takes decades. GIS, when used appropriately, is used across all jurisdictions within their departments — public works, parks and recreation, economic development, fire [and] police. You have a disruption, and that event requires you to manage it just like you manage other kinds of government operations, so it will be pervasive for many years as recovery efforts are made.

The real power of GIS in recovery is in the idea of geo-design. If I know, based on current and historical events, my risk of these events occurring every year or 10 years, I really ought to think about identifying where they impact and determining if what we built there can withstand it so that we have resilience. The whole rebuilding and recovery process, that’s where GIS can play a very important role. It’ll be used for probably the next several years throughout the recovery, the complete recovery phase. 

What about using it to handle damage from older disasters like Katrina?

Maybe every 100 years, you’re going to get that Category 5 hurricane coming through. Are we going to relive the same event again, or do we make some intelligent decisions about how we rebuild, how we design, where people live [and] where we don’t rebuild?

You have to put a plan together to say, “Well, let’s separate the rubble out into things we can burn, things that need to be hauled, and let’s identify, for each area, a route and a location where this is going to go.” GIS gives you a tool to be able to figure that out, and that’s still going on in Katrina today.

How has GIS technology changed in disaster management over the years?

GIS was, let’s say, 10, 15 years ago, primarily a desktop tool, and a trained GIS professional would use it because it is complex. As the Internet has evolved, we see it in the hands of just about everybody, and it has become so configurable that it can be put together in an application that supports, specifically, what someone does. Let’s say my job in emergency management is logistics, finding the right resources and getting them to the right places, making sure that the transportation corridor can accommodate that, or that we have new routes. We can build a tool with GIS that simply does one job for that person.

What will GIS in disaster aid look like in the future?

I think it’s going to get easier, I think it’s going to get more accessible, and I think it’s going to push as much as it requires you to pull. What do I mean by that? I mean, if I’m anybody on the street, and I have access through my smartphone to whatever we want to call it — maybe it’s a disaster alert, and all of a sudden a wildfire breaks out. I might get notified that a wildfire’s broken out and they need to evacuate in a certain direction. I think, even though it may not be really visible for some people in these cases, it’s going to become very, very intelligent, and it’s going to notify and alert some emails just based on location interval

Photo credit: MISHELLA /


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Hilton Collins

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.

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