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GISCorps Volunteers – First Deployment – The Brain Bus, Mississippi State University
On August 30, following the massive devastation of Hurricane Katrina to the Gulf Coast, Talbot Brooks, who was in charge of the emergency efforts in Mississippi, contacted GISCorps’ Shoreh Elhami to ask for GIS assistance. URISA widely distributed a Call for Volunteers to assist with recovery efforts and the GIS Community overwhelmingly responded to the Call – during the first few days, more than 500 new volunteers rushed to fill out the application form to serve. While the GISCorps Volunteer Count was at 270 in August 31, 2005, it went up to 890 by September 15, 2005 and to 915 by September 26, 2005.

Talbot specified the requirements for the job. The ideal volunteer would have “enough GIS experience to work effectively in an emergency situation; have expertise in map production, performing analysis, data management, etc.; and have expertise in disaster management and working with GPS equipment.” The GISCorps Committee worked tirelessly to identify individuals with the right qualifications who have volunteered their time and expertise at the Emergency Operations Center in Jackson, Mississippi. The volunteers in this first deployment were from Ohio, Missouri, Florida, North Carolina, Illinois, California, New York, Texas, Arkansas, and Colorado and have an average work experience of 8 years. They had an immediate impact on the situation. Working with local universities, the team was involved in the following (through September 4, 2005):

1. Search and Rescue. We translated more than 100 addresses/locations into GPS coordinates for the US Coast Guard rescue helicopter evacuation missions. Many of these location to GPS translations could only be done fast enough using GIS – (sometimes the calls come in as “I’m trapped at the water treatment plant in _____” or “I’m about 1 mile north of _____ and I can see a church steeple”.

2. We built the initial indexed search maps for the initial responders and strike teams – printed nearly 200 maps in under 10 hours. We are now finishing a revised and expanded search map set that covers eight county areas and will be used for house-to-house.

3. We ran the initial HAZUS model that provided what’s turned out to be an unfortunately accurate prediction of what has happened. This helped operational managers pre-position response assets out of harm’s immediate way and still within range to help.

4. We have printed more than 5,000 linear feet of maps off of two plotters. Mapping support services include the location of critical infrastructure such as water well heads, water treatment plants etc… that cannot be easily located due to the amount of debris.

5. Generated the briefing maps being seen by everyone from the individual responder through the President and showing things such as power outages, location of trees road closures, etc…

Several of the volunteers’ maps which were created by Friday, September 2, 2005 can be viewed in this PDF file.

Group one (Map Production Team), 11 Volunteers:

1. Dick Kotapish, Lake County GIS Department, OH, URISA Member

2. JD Overton, ESRI St Louis, MO

3. Heather Milton, ESRI St Louis, MO

4. Mark Hollingshead, ESRI St Louis, MO

5. Matt Cieri, City of Kissimmee, FL , URISA Member

6. Kim Holden, Regional Water Authority, CT, URISA Member

7. Sanjeev Arya, Geodecisions, IL, URISA Member

8. Twyla McDermott, City of Charlotte, NC, URISA Member

9. Beni Patel, Tessellations Inc., TX

10. Tom Chatfield, Northrop-Grumman-BLM, CO, URISA Member

11. Wesley Harp, Mark S Vaghan Architects , Jackson, MS (also graciously shared his home with a few of the volunteers)

Group two (GPS Team), 10 Volunteers:

1. Molly Reif, US EPA/Sobran, OH

2. Paul McKnight, City of Austin, TX

3. Bruce Willett, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, NY

4. Michelle Alexander, City of Charlotte, NC, URISA Member

5. Ray DeLeon, Redevelopment Agency of San Jose, CA

6. Leeanne Pacatte, City of Austin, TX

7. Sean Bohac, City of San Diego, CA

8. Ann Hooper, City of Casselberry, FL, URISA Member

9. Laura Horton, US Coast Guard, CA, URISA Member

10. Hanna Ford, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, AR

Reflections from the volunteers:

  • “Saving lives by volunteering using skills that few people have gives volunteering a whole new meaning. I never thought GIS could mean so much until after this mission!” Matt Cieri, City of Kissimmee, FL
  • “The most satisfying one week of my life!” Sanjeev Arya, GeoDecisions, IL
  • “I went to Mississippi to do what I could to help and I feel very fortunate and honored to have been able to assist the GISCorps in its worthy mission. But I think I received way more than I gave. I am very thankful for the experience and even more appreciative of all my blessings and my fellow humans.” Leeanne Pacatte, City of Austin, TX
  • “It really made me feel good to be able to use my skills in this manner. I met some really great people who had made the team well rounded.” Kim Holden, Regional Water Authority, CT
  • “This deployment was about helping small southern counties utilize a technology that they have little experience with. The support that maps bring to an EOC is unimaginable. The sense of providing a valuable skillset and product to the situation is immediate and the people we were supporting were genuinely thankful for our presence.” Paul McKnight, City of Austin, TX
  • “We came from all walks of life and had never met each other, yet we managed to function as a team. We all had the same single focus, we were there to help and make a significant contribution.” Beni Patel, Tessellations, Inc. TX
  • “Being from New Orleans and growing up along the Mississippi Gulf Coast region, the Katrina disaster has affected my family in a tremendous way. The opportunity to give back through GISCorps was extremely significant for me, and I will never forget the genuine collaboration that lead to such a powerful outcome.” Molly Reif, SoBran/EPA, OH
  • “It is extremely gratifying to be able to apply my experience and professional skills to help in a national emergency. GIS Professionals understand the benefits of a GIS system with good resources and valid data. Building, analyzing, supporting and delivering this data are all essential and vital parts of being a GISCorps volunteer.” Ray DeLeon, City of San Jose, CA
  • “I work for the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, sometimes directly with FEMA, the NYS Emergency Management. I do flood mapping, had spent time working in Liberia after the civil war and thought I could provide GIS support. I had contacted all to volunteer my GIS services. Most never got back to me or had no information. GISCorps saves the day!” Bruce Willett, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, NY
  • “It’s not easy to understand how important something as simple as a street map can be to folks who need one, until you find yourself in the middle of a disaster.” Sean Bohac, City of San Diego, CA
  • “Being in the control room at the State EOC, I experienced the heartfelt appreciation expressed by the Governor and leaders in the Coast Guard, National Guard, Army, Civilian Air Patrol and many others who felt the positive impact of GIS. URISA should be very proud; the GISCorps and local universities, especially Talbot Brooks, should be credited with delivering FEMA’s GIS mission in Mississippi.” Dick Kotapish, Lake County GIS Department, OH
  • “As ceiling fans in the Stone County production area were blowing maps around:Twyla: I need a paper weight.Tom: We have 2 GPS units.”Twyla McDermott, City of Charlotte, NC

    Submission from Talbot Brooks:

    On Saturday, 27 August 2005, I began to volunteer at the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency’s (MEMA) Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in my state capital of Jackson in preparation for Hurricane Katrina. Geospatial technologies were not integrated with MEMA or FEMA’s immediate operational plans.

    I set to work with Chris Mullen, a structural engineer at the University of Mississippi, on using HAZUS, a FEMA flood/wind damage prediction model. This model runs within ArcGIS and maps areas at high risk for significant damage. The flood portion of HAZUS failed to work correctly and I was forced to download DEM’s of coastal Mississippi and intersect them with a plane elevated to the height of the predicted storm surge to model inundation. The resulting maps helped decision makers to stage emergency responders, organize additional resources, and generally prepare state and local officials for the oncoming disaster.

    As Katrina came ashore, I began to receive positive responses to my calls for geospatial technical assistance from GITA, URISA’s GIS Corps, ESRI, and colleagues throughout Mississippi. I also worked to adapt geospatial services to answer location-based questions, mapping requests, and general information needs from the operations center and from Governor Haley Barbour and his staff.

    Two general categories of products/requests became clear. Those responding to the pending disaster on Mississippi’s gulf coast had immediate needs for street, search and rescue, and infrastructure maps. Government officials inland needed maps that analyzed and displayed current conditions and the progress of the rescue/recovery efforts. Local, state, and federal government needed a clear picture of where and how badly need existed to commit resources.

    Our assembled team of volunteer geospatial experts quickly began to provide a variety of services to individual responders, especially translation of street addresses to latitude/longitude for US Coast Guard helicopter rescue crews. During the height of the storm, our phone continuously rang. Requests were wide ranging and could as easily have come from volunteers offering services or from someone trapped in their attic with water rising on the other end of the line. In some instances, individuals in dire need of rescue could only visually describe their surroundings. We used remote sensing and GIS to locate them and send help.

    We printed more than 3,000 feet of street and search and rescue maps for individual responders from 28-30 August. For decision makers, we made and regularly updated maps of street status, power outages, cell phone coverage, and more. All of this was accomplished using free public data sources, volunteers, and donated equipment and software.

    While much was accomplished, our ability to act and our overall assistance efforts were limited by the lack of integration of geospatial services within the established emergency response “plan”. Personnel, equipment, data, lines of communication, and collaborations were assembled and integrated as best was possible given the circumstances. Even within FEMA, which touts GIS as a resource, equipment, personnel, and data were severely lacking until weeks after the storm and those services are now largely outsourced.

    If geospatial services had been integrated within the operational plan and the information stream, we would have been better able to support rescue and response operations. After all, a map is a picture, and “a picture is worth a thousand words”. The audible gasps and looks of comprehension when tables and narratives were replaced with maps were unforgettable.

    While geospatial information technologies continue to play a significant role in the continuing effort, I call upon my university-based geography colleagues to join URISA, GITA, ESRI and GISCorps to develop and promote the integration of our tools and talents within disaster preparedness. We need a well led nationally coordinated effort. We must work with decision makers, data holders, and emergency managers to develop systems that allow us to respond as a serious profession to the needs of our communities in times of adversity. These efforts must be coordinated in one-stop and one-call centers, the creation of regional response teams, and the creation and integration of geospatial information in the response and decision-making process.

    Respectfully submitted,

    Talbot J. Brooks, DirectorCenter for Interdisciplinary Geospatial Information Technologies Delta State University

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