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The Columbus Dispatch, OH - September 12, 2005

Group Puts Geography to the Test in Rescues

DELAWARE, Ohio – Like most volunteers who have descended on the Gulf region this past week, one of the first things Ray DeLeon did was help Hurricane Katrina survivors start cleaning.

"Yeah, first we helped them to clean up their data," DeLeon said. "Then we started making maps."

Some volunteers have come armed with shovels and bottles of bleach. DeLeon and his fellow GIS Corps members have brought their laptops, portable printers and jump drives.

The GISCorps is an international volunteer organization for Geographic-Information Systems professionals. Begun in 2003 by Delaware County resident Shoreh Elhami, the group has attracted nearly 900 members from 45 states and 33 countries. Perhaps known best for their map-making skills, GIS professionals also are masters at retrieving and organizing the data needed to direct rescue and rebuilding operations.

DeLeon, a 36-year-old San Francisco resident, was among the first GISCorps members sent to Indonesia after a tsunami hit there Dec. 26. He spent six weeks in the area, remapping it so that rescue workers would know where bridges, roads, shipping ports and airports still existed. DeLeon said the scale of destruction he has seen since arriving in Mississippi on Sept. 4 rivals what he saw along the Indian Ocean.

"We're seeing parts of houses in the trees, cars that are smashed halfway into the ground and lobster traps everywhere," said DeLeon, who is a GIS analyst for the city of San Jose, Calif. He said he's been using up paid and unpaid vacation time to perform his volunteer work. About 20 GISCorps volunteers currently are serving in Mississippi and Louisiana with a new crew of 20 due to change places with them on Sunday, Sept. 11.

Elhami, who heads the GIS division of the Delaware County Auditor's Office, just returned from GISCorps work in Kabul, Afghanistan, in May. She has remained at home this time, but said she's excited to know that GISCorps volunteers are aiding in rescue, and not just rebuilding, missions this time.

"They saved 75 people's lives (last) Sunday alone," Elhami said Friday.

DeLeon explained: "Every now and then, the Coast Guard will run in and say something like, ‘I've got these five people at this address and we need the latitude and longitude to fly in and get them.'"

Other calls, Elhami said, come directly from stranded victims.

"People have been making calls from where they're stuck," Elhami said. "Sometimes people won't know where they are but they'll say they can see steeples or other buildings or landmarks."

A GISCorps volunteer will use the information to deduce the caller's location on a map. Or if they're lucky, a call will come in from a cell phone with a transponder in it that allows the receiver to plot the location via a global-positioning satellite.

Talbot Brooks runs the Center for Interdisciplinary Geospatial Information Technologies at Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss., but he hadn't known about the GISCorps until "I answered the phone at the Emergency Operations Center (in Jackson County, Miss.,) and found Shoreh offering desperately needed help."

Less than 48 hours later, the first batch of laptop-toting GISCorps volunteers arrived.

"I can tell you, the folks from the GISCorps, they really saved lives," Brooks said. "Folks would come in with a street address (for a survivor), but that street address would no longer exist. They'd also use aerial photos, pre-hurricane, and translate that to latitude and longitude."

In the course of 12-14 hour work days, Brooks said, "They did this more than 300 times for the Coast Guard."

In the first week following Katrina, Brooks said the GISCorps volunteers generated new maps every 12 hours, including all those seen on TV at news conferences. Brooks also credited several organizations which have donated free software and equipment, including Environmental Systems Research Institute, Leica Geosystems, InTime Inc. and all the area's state universities.

DeLeon said he estimates the GISCorps' Katrina work could take another three weeks, but he's finishing up his one-week volunteer stint feeling like he really took a "byte" out of the problems facing the region.

"You really feel like it's happening to you," DeLeon said. "And you definitely feel like you've helped."

Author: Jane Hawes - Reprinted with permission from the Columbus Dispatch