Earth Imaging Journal: Remote Sensing, Satellite Images, Satellite Imagery
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By Tim Little, Office of Corporate Communications, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (www.nga.mil), Bethesda, Md.

When floods devastated parts of Colorado in September 2013, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the lead federal agency for Colorado flood response, called the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) for help. In response, NGA deployed two analysts to Boulder and Loveland, Colo., and launched its suite of analysis and collaboration tools to aid search and rescue efforts and provide flood and damage assessments.

Online Assistance

NGA’s disaster event Web page is a hub for accessing the agency’s products and services. Through this unclassified Web page, federal, state and local response partners are able to submit and review requests for geospatial information and specific analysis needs, view and download NGA products such as maps and graphics that illustrate areas and extent of damage, and contribute information for the combined response effort.

NGA launched its first disaster event page for the response to Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. The collaboration tool is now a standard component of the agency’s disaster-response service. The agency creates a page as soon as a lead federal agency asks for help.

An aerial view shows flood damage in Colorado on Sept. 14, 2013. NGA deployed analysts and launched analysis and collaboration tools to help search and rescue efforts and provide damage assessments.

Overcoming Adversity

As is often the case in disaster response, weather and cloud cover made analyzing conditions in Colorado more challenging. Multiple sources of data and imagery, including commercial news reports and information found in publicly available social media streams, had to be evaluated along with commercial imagery and other traditional information sources.

The agency’s new GeoQ system makes such multisource analysis more efficient. GeoQ integrates imagery and analysis from multiple sources and geographically dispersed analysts and better facilitates the use of crowdsourcing to define the extent of damaged areas. It enables analysts to review imagery from different sources simultaneously, rather than sequentially, which results in much faster damage assessments. This allows responders to appropriately focus and prioritize limited resources.

Because the Colorado floods didn’t follow a predictable river- and stream-bed pattern, typical modeling techniques couldn’t be used, which made NGA’s imagery-derived damage assessments more critical. NGA identified more than 3,000 damaged structures in the greater Denver and Boulder areas. The NGA flood and damage assessments resulted in disaster declarations in numerous counties.

In addition, NGA aided urban search and rescue operations by graphically depicting where searches already had occurred and tracking search and rescue personnel movements via Global Positioning System logs. This type of analysis allows first responders to better manage response efforts and avoid duplicating searches or missing damaged structures.

Through the disaster event page, NGA is providing information and geospatial intelligence to everyone involved in disaster response in a self-serve, on-demand format. In addition, NGA analysts on the ground and the team at headquarters assisted responders with more complex, specific analysis when needed. By streamlining the processes and making finished products easily available through the event page, NGA was able to focus analysis efforts on the harder problems confronting the response effort.

Editor’s Note: Thanks to the NGA Pathfinder staff for their assistance with this column.

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