Oklahoma Tornadoes Underscore Importance of GIS in Disaster Recovery Efforts

by | Jul 30, 2013

AURORA, Colo., July 29, 2013”The massive damage from a record-breaking tornado, which swept across Moore, Okla. on May 20, is a stark reminder of how deadly and capricious nature can be. But those who learn geographic information systems (GIS) can take a little solace in one thought: the ways they use technology can greatly help with disaster recovery efforts.

GIS analysts have the knowledge and expertise to apply GIS tools and techniques to aid in natural disaster response and recovery efforts, says Dr. Stephen McElroy, GIS program chair for American Sentinel University. GIS provides GIS analysts with the capability of evaluating the extent of the damage and identifying where people may require immediate medical attention or rescue.

After a natural disaster, such as a tornado, there are several issues that must be addressed quickly, including shelter locations, overall damage assessment, current physical asset inventories and service outages.

Dr. McElroy says that location is the key factor in the recovery process, so determining the number of people affected and coordinating the resources to assist victims can be made a lot easier through the use of GIS. In times of tremendous need, GIS analysts can play a critical role in matching relief supplies and donations to the precise areas that are most affected, he adds.

A robust system built in advance could show locations of houses, public buildings, businesses, utility poles, buried cables, storm drains and other features that could be of importance to rescue workers and crews.

GIS can aid with recovery efforts by providing detailed aerial and satellite imagery to assess before and after disaster conditions so that targeted recovery efforts can be planned and coordinated based on the imagery.

GIS also provides the ability to overlay the digital images using GIS software on laptops or creating web applications for mobile device consumption that puts information directly in the hands of first responders and recovery teams. Local government agencies can also print hardcopy maps with ancillary GIS data to support to field crews dealing with public utility issues.

GIS software vendor Esri built a disaster response map for Moore, Okla. that allows users to explore the path of the tornado and its estimated damage radius and view shelters, relief locations and charging stations. Users can also select additional data layers for schools in the area, 2012 population density data and imagery, and can see the real-time effects of the tornado via social media posts. (See map at http://www.esri.com/services/disaster-response/severe-weather/moore-oklahoma-tornado-public-information-map).¨¨Dr. McElroy says that such integration of information can be invaluable, particularly when used with satellite imagery showing before and after views, helping officials know where to concentrate their efforts.

Local personnel can integrate social media data with GIS mapping to provide enhanced information to first responders. National Weather Service officials geotagged photos for use with GIS software.

Geotagged Twitter posts provide location-based information that first responders can use to identify areas in which people need help. The x,y coordinates of each tweet can be plotted on a map to indicate specific locations in need of aid, says Dr. McElroy.

Experts indicate that less than two percent of all tweets are currently geotagged, so the data stream is a tiny fraction of all Twitter activity. Even so, disaster relief scenarios provide real world situations in which limited data can provide valuable insights that can save lives.

In the realm of research, there are a variety of free and fee-based services that geographic information scientists use to access the Twitter data stream in order to study a broad range of topics including early warning systems, emergency response and disaster recovery.

In addition, a number of technologies can help with insurance claims submissions and processing.

High-resolution aerial imagery and geotagged photographs are two ways in which geospatial technologies can support the work of insurance adjusters, says Dr. McElroy.

He points out that photography enriched with location-based coordinates pinpoints damage to structures and provides visual evidence that can be examined in the future, not just within a few days of chaos and frenzy associated with a disaster. Such documentation helps to expedite the claims process.

By combining aerial photography and three-dimensional measurement, reports with exact measurements can aid adjusters as well as help crews assess property damage.

A GIS Ph.D. student who was from the Moore area used camcorders with integrated GIS as he drove the streets and recorded the damage. The resulting video helped track the recovery process.

It's good to know that besides getting good work in their field, GIS experts can do good work helping others in time of need, adds Dr. McElroy.

Increasingly, GIS analyst positions require a master's degree in GIS or a specific discipline with a technical focus in GIS. Technology professionals interested in becoming GIS analysts should determine the job classification requirements in their industry and establish an education action plan to meet their career goals.

Learn more about American Sentinel University's GIS master's degree program at http://www.americansentinel.edu/information-technology/master-geospatial-information-systems.

About American Sentinel University

American Sentinel University delivers the competitive advantages of accredited associate, bachelor’s and master’s online degree programs focused on the needs of high-growth sectors, including information technology, computer science, GIS masters programs, online GIS certificates, computer information systems and business intelligence degrees. The university is accredited by the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC), which is listed by the U.S. Department of Education as a nationally recognized accrediting agency and is a recognized member of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.


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