Exclusive: Disaster response in the digital age

By GovInsider

Interview with Jon Pedder, Technical Lead, Esri Disaster Response Programme.

It was mid-August when the threat of Hurricane Harvey loomed ominously on the horizon. However, the Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM) was still primarily relying on paper maps to prepare the response to the Hurricane just three days before landfall.

As the hurricane swept along its wide, destructive path, TDEM needed a way to manage the accompanying inundation of data.

GIS software provider Esri provided support, knowledge and resources to help speed up the implementation of ArcGIS Online – a web based GIS platform that provides TDEM a foundation for mapping, visualising and analysing data to support critical decision making.

Using this platform, TDEM was able to support emergency management operations including evacuations, assist in search and rescue operations, and save lives.

The Disaster Response Programme (DRP) at Esri played a central role, leveraging their deep, varied expertise in web GIS solutions to make the greatest possible difference.

“We bridge the gap when it exceeds agencies’ capacity or ability to respond,” says Jon Pedder, Technical Lead for DRP. Esri has supported governments around the world in emergencies and crises like this one over the past few decades, he says.

Pedder shares with GovInsider three case studies of how Esri’s solutions have helped governments around the world to improve on disaster response - and, more importantly, become more resilient towards an uncertain future.

Hurricane Harvey

To support governments when disaster strikes, DRP provides software, temporary licenses, and workflow expertise - and will even send people on-site when the scale of an event warrants it, says Pedder. TDEM used to print maps every 12 hours and use these for briefings.

But during a disaster, “rescues are happening, roads are being closed, more floods are happening”, Pedder points out. Also consider the fact that the hurricane was responsible for approximately 35,000 square miles of flooding across eastern Texas.

And more than 400 operators were in the field collecting data, while more information streamed in from sensors, gauges and weather feeds from across the state.

On such a grand scale, paper maps simply cannot “keep up with the flow of data” the way interactive web GIS maps can, according to Pedder. “The moment you print a map, it’s out of date in a disaster,” he notes.

With time fast running out, the department implemented full web GIS capabilities with the support of Esri’s disaster response team over the course of a weekend.

Web GIS can give governments a ‘big picture’ view of a disaster, with information that is “as real-time as the data feeds are”. When Hurricane Irma was threatening to devastate Florida, Pedder’s team supported state and local teams as they established and communicated evacuation routes for millions of people - which is “a GIS problem”, he says.

Based on crucial data and analysis that web GIS can provide, the local government could make decisions on the locations of shelters, for example, and where to alter freeways to go one-way instead of two-way for evacuations. “Two lanes are good, but four lanes are better,” he points out.

Hurricane Maria

In September, Hurricane Maria practically “flattened” Puerto Rico. The aftermath meant no power or internet, Esri supported teams of field engineers with offline mapping capabilities so that they could navigate and still collect data, says Pedder.

His team also worked with the local Esri distributor to support their needs, including working with a power distributor to identify power transmission routes, the storm had destroyed lines and poles. Here, post-event imagery can be a powerful tool.

Night photos before and after a disaster can be extremely useful: “they can tell you where the lights are out, where there isn’t power, by the absence of data”, Pedder explains.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory flew satellites over Puerto Rico’s disaster-stricken areas to take photos that “gave first responders a first look”.

Esri also works with other agencies and satellite imagery providers to obtain and publish image services, which can make a huge difference in both response and recovery efforts, Pedder continues.

The Charlottesville protests

Trainings make up a huge part of Esri’s work with governments, so that if “unplanned events” happen, they have the necessary know-how to seamlessly and effectively respond.

In Richmond, Virginia, the Henrico County Fire Department supports yearly NASCAR races, and have used these as training events for personnel and GIS teams for years, according to Pedder.

That knowledge became particularly useful during the Charlottesville incident in August, when a march by white supremacists turned violent.

The Henrico team was called down to “support and run the event from an incident management standpoint”. They brought with them operational GIS knowledge and the tracking devices used in the NASCAR races so that they could track the police, ambulances, medics, and other resources.

It was during this incident that a rally-goer drove his vehicle into the crowd, killing one and injuring 19 others. The team drew on their expertise from planned event management, so that they could point the medics to the exact location where the injured people were, and give the police access to data that allowed them to set up exit routes and roadblocks.

Their response was more efficient and coordinated because “they had practiced and got it right before”, Pedder notes. “Now when they need to, if everything goes south in an event like this, they can come in and manage it more effectively.”

A resilient world

The world is more complex than ever before. A city’s vulnerability to disaster only increases as its population and wealth becomes more concentrated in urban areas. This means that governments cannot afford to wait for a disaster to happen before springing into action.

Resilience is key: cities should approach potential threats and disaster risk management in a holistic way, where government joins forces with private sector, civil society, educational institutes and citizens themselves. In disaster preparedness, it is essential that the parties involved are able to communicate their needs.

The DRP team conducts tabletop trainings and exercises to bring GIS experts and operators together, so that they may collaborate and create focused, targeted maps and applications, according to Pedder. “If they’re not speaking the same language, how are they supposed to talk to each other and ask for products?” he says.

Once both sides are talking the same ‘language’, they will be better prepared when unplanned events do happen, Pedder believes. Disaster preparedness also means that government officials know what resources their city needs, and exactly where to find them, in the event of a disaster.

Here is where Esri’s rich and varied experience in emergency management can help. In the aftermath, Esri’s Disaster Response team is able to support government’s recovery efforts by mapping damaged infrastructure, affected populations, and resources.

This highly specialised team will also be able to work with officials to develop mitigation plans, manage resources and prioritise recovery efforts.

Disasters are inevitable - but if cities can bounce back and recover faster than before, this means saving more resources, critical infrastructure, and most important of all – lives.

To learn more about how to build a safe, prepared and resilient community, download the whitepaper by filling out your details below. Image by NOAA SatellitesCC BY 2.0