T&D World Magazine

GIS Volunteers Help in Mississippi Hurricane Katrina Response

Geographic information system (GIS) volunteers provided mapping and other crucial services for Mississippi in response to Hurricane Katrina. Similar to volunteer efforts in Louisiana and Alabama, GIS volunteers, many of whom were from the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association's (URISA) GISCorps, provided initial GIS support in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as well as established a GIS infrastructure at the Mississippi State Emergency Operations Center and provided support for rescue and recovery efforts for Mississippi.

"Our first project was in response to the tsunami disaster," says Shoreh Elhami, GISCorps cofounder and chairperson. "With each new project, more and more volunteers are coming on board and doing tremendous work. I think the response to Hurricane Katrina is another example of this type of overwhelming response by the GIS community. It makes me feel proud of the profession that we are in."

"It was a true team effort," says Talbot Brooks, director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Geospatial Technologies at Delta State University. "GISCorps, Geospatial Information and Technology Association (GITA), ESRI, Leica Geosystems, and volunteers from Mississippi agencies and the state education system all played significant roles in the response and rescue efforts using geospatial technologies. Maps and analysis were prepared by all these agencies. All data represented draws from the pooled resources of ESRI, the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), Mississippi Automated Resource Information System, and responding agencies. It is remarkable to think of the combined effort."

GIS played a significant role immediately following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina. U.S. Coast Guard helicopters used GPS coordinates provided by volunteer staff to evacuate people from flooded homes. With streets flooded and addresses unavailable from boat or helicopter, phone calls from people requesting evacuation were taken and addresses and other landmarks converted into coordinates that rescue staff could use to locate people. GIS volunteers translated hundreds of addresses/locations into GPS coordinates for the U.S. Coast Guard rescue helicopter evacuation missions.

GIS maps provided overall situational awareness for incident commanders and other high-level decision makers at state and county emergency command centers and MEMA as well as the governor and even the President of the United States. GIS was also used to make the customized street search and rescue maps used by first responders and emergency staff on the ground and in harm's way.

Situational awareness maps included power outage/restoration; cell phone coverage as towers came back online; areas of potential flooding; road closures and access; location of aid and comfort facilities such as shelters, kitchens, and water and ice distribution points; command and control areas for the National Guard; the Federal Emergency Management Agency declarations for aid eligibility; environmentally hazardous sites; the location of public infrastructure such as electric substations; and the location of medical care facilities.

ArcGIS Desktop (ArcView, ArcEditor, and ArcInfo) was used as the primary tool to edit and produce maps; ArcSDE, hosted by ESRI in Redlands, California, and eventually in Jackson, Mississippi, served as the data management/database tool; ArcIMS was used to help disseminate information among Emergency Operations Center personnel; and ArcGIS 3D Analyst was used in flood modeling.

"There were a number of ways GIS maps and mapmakers made a difference in the Hurricane Katrina response," says Elhami. "We continue to have GISCorps volunteers helping there now. We will do everything we can to help, learn from this event, and hopefully be even more prepared for future events."

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