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Home arrow Articles arrow Emergency Response arrow GIS and GISCorps Respond to Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi     

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GIS and GISCorps Respond to Hurricane Katrina in Mississippi PDF Print E-mail
Written by Talbot J. Brooks, Delta State University (edited by Glenn Letham)   
20 September 2005
Talbot J. Brooks, Director, Center for Interdisciplinary Geospatial Information Technologies, Delta State University worked within MEMA, FEMA, and the rest of the alphabet soup to start GIS at the Jackson Emergency Operations Center. According to Brooks, the GISCorps call for help came at his request. He has graciously shared his story of Hurricane Katrina, the role GIS played in the response, and the 27 August - 6 September time period.... in his words... he was "there". Read on for a look at the response, some Q & A's, and example maps and images from the URISA GIScorps in Mississippi.

The preparation for a response actually started a week before Katrina came. It was then that Brooks helped write mission statements with the Emergency Manager for Bolivar County, MS., Leonard Locke from Delta State took part (helped would eventually construct a missing persons database), as did Ken McCool from McCool Management Services who ultimately helped direct the public works reconstruction effort.

Talbot Brooks was not aware of GIS Corps prior to this event and noted, "I will be forever grateful to them (Shoreh - GIScorps) for getting through to me and lining up their awesome help." Brooks started sending emails and contacting his entire GIT contact list on Sunday (Aug 28), starting with messages to Bob Samborski (GITA) and numerous colleagues within the MS education system. These contacts eventually got him in touch with the GIScorps.

The following are some examples of products created during the first 10 days of work. Mr. Brooks arrived in Jackson the Saturday before Katrina hit and began working on flood and wind damage model prediction with Chris Mullens, a structural engineer from the University of MS, using HAZUS (FEMA model that runs within ArcGIS). He also quickly realized that GIS was going to be needed big-time and put out the call for help. GIS Corps, GITA, ESRI, the State's educational systems, and some State agencies answered the call immediately and responded with equipment and personnel. Working at the Jackson Emergency Operations Center in support of the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, and the National Guards, here's some of what this ad-hoc operation accomplished:

1. Integration with Search and Rescue activities including
a. Translation of street address to degrees, minutes, seconds required for helicopter and land-based 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.
b. Assisted with the creation and integration of the missing persons database and subsequent mapping. To date, we have produced more than 400 search and rescue maps for use in the field showing the last known location for the more than 10,000 missing persons.
c. Secured a team of 20 GPS experts with equipment to assist with technical issues and on-scene guidance.

2. Collected and mapped immediate operational concerns beyond SAR to include public works, energy, communications, environmental quality, public safety (fire/police/ems), shelter, food, and water. These products are now regular production and special request items to each operational unit. Some sample maps produced include:
a. Energy: outage maps
b. Communications: cell phone tower and coverage maps (Nextel now, now getting data from other providers)
c. Public Safety: provided search and street maps to initial responders during first 24 hour operational period and now to incoming law enforcement (produced 64 36"x36" maps to Fish and Game for law enforcement last night)
d. DEQ: Provided hazards location map (underground gas storage, location of facilities with HAZMAT inventories..)
e. Public Works: Location of DOH wells, electric substations, and other critical infrastructure for restoration of services
f. DOH: power outages, hospital status, and other life safety concerns.
g. Red Cross, Salvation Army, Mental Health: maps of shelter, food, and water distribution points and capacities

3. Interagency GIS coordination - supporting in a limited, but expanding role:
b. DEQ (national)
c. FL CERT team
e. All MS agencies

4. Online mapping website (ESRI)

5. Assets and personnel now include (as of 6 Sept 2005):
a. Mapping team of ~40 persons from all state universities and GIS Corps (non-profit group providing significant personnel expertise)
i. GIS Corps - 20 mapping experts
ii. ESRI (leading GIS software manufacturer upon which all of our products are based) - off site web and database services being rendered 24/7 valued at more than $1.5M of in-kind services and software to date (another incredible response) - their team in TX, CA, and MO involves at least 25 technicians and managers.
iii. MSU - 6-8 GPS/GIS experts including faculty
iv. Ole' Miss - 6-8 GPS/GIS experts including faculty
v. Delta State - myself and 4 students trained in GPS and GIS
vi. DEQ - IT and database expert
vii. Dozens of external companies and organizations assisting with locating and securing donated time and resources, particularly GITA.
b. GITA/Leica Geosystems - 20 high-accuracy GPS units with 4 field team members/trainers able to execute rapid-needs GPS missions ) locate buried infrastructure and hazards (would you believe that Trimble wanted a rental contract before they would send equipment and help?)
c. MSU GISMobile (the brain bus) from MS State
d. Through GITA, additional assets and resources on the way on a donated/in-kind basis include 50 Garmin GPS units, more personnel

Sample maps produced during the effort:







Maps prepared by numerous volunteers from GIS Corps, ESRI, MS state agencies, and the MS University System. All data represented draws from the pooled resources of ESRI, MEMA, MARIS, and MEMA responding agencies.

Q & A

Regarding the Role of the GIScorps, I addressed the following questions to Mr. Brooks:

Glenn - GISuser: What specific skills were needed in the immediate call for volunteers?

Talbot Brooks: I asked for 2 teams initially from GIS Corps. One for serious expertise with ArcMap in an SDE environment and another with ArcMap and GPS experience that had their own equipment and could operate on the front lines if needed. I also requested that all persons be able to deal emotionally with what was happening as this was/is a totally overwhelming event.

Glenn: Did the team come from any specific geographic region or were the volunteers from various programs? I imagine most came from College programs.

Talbot Brooks: The initial round of volunteers came from MS State, Delta State, and Univ. of MS. James Brown from the MS DOT and Craigin Knox from MS DEQ helped tremendously and came from state agencies. The GIS Corps volunteers came from across the nation - they were from every aspect of GIT imaginable - and started arriving very late Wednesday with the bulk of them getting in late Thursday through Saturday. I believe the Leica crew came out of Atlanta.

Glenn: Has the crew worked from various locations in a coordinated effort or did many people travel to a central location to do their jobs?

Talbot Brooks:  Most came to Jackson and we all worked in a coordinated effort. ESRI, DigiQuest, and GITA teams worked remotely to set up databases, helped coordinate, etc.. at UC Berkeley, Redlands, San Antonio, and Denver.

Glenn: During this process what were some of the largest hurdles to overcome?

Talbot Brooks:  Accurate and complete data was nearly non-existent at the start from easily accessed public resources such as MARIS. It took a long time (relatively speaking) for the privately held datasets like geocodable street layers, to make it into the system.

The second biggest issue was logistics and personnel. GIS was not really a part of the operational plan from the start, so transporting and housing people was tough. GIS Corps went a long way in solving the personnel issue as they were able to rapidly match skilled people with on the ground needs - something I could have never accomplished in the operations center with spotty communications. GITA helped out big time with equipment logistics - especially when Ashok and Bob were able to round up GPS units and the folks from Leica.

Communications was the other huge hurdle as it was up and down quite a bit.

A few Photos from the operations in MS

Katrina response - Mississippi

The “Brain Bus” is a 10-seat mobile classroom equipped with laptops “hijacked” from an ESRI training course taught in MS. The RV was provided by MS State University

Katrina response - Mississippi

Inside the “Brain Bus”

Katrina response - Mississippi
Volunteers preparing for shift change


In closing I had to ask Mr. Brooks the following... during this response, what worked out perfectly, what didn't, and what surprised you? Mr. Brooks response...  "It was more like a terrifying wild ride by the seat of my pants. I know our efforts saved lives and conveyed critical information to people who needed it. In that sense, it was a success. That we couldn't do this seamlessly right from the start was frustrating beyond imagination for me. I could fill a library with lessons learned just from my own mistakes, but overall and given the circumstances, it went as well as could be expected from the GIS standpoint."

Congratulations and kudos to everyone involved in this effort. The GIS community is proud and applauds your efforts. Thanks to Talbot Brooks for sharing his story, the maps, and images with the GISuser community.


Maps - prepared by numerous volunteers from GIS Corps, ESRI, MS state agencies, and the MS University System. All data represented draws from the pooled resources of ESRI, MEMA, MARIS, and MEMA responding agencies.

Photos: Dick Kopatish, GIS Corps volunteer

Contact Info - Talbot J. Brooks, Director
Center for Interdisciplinary Geospatial Information Technologies Delta State University 110 Kethley Hall Cleveland, MS 38733

Those who wish to help & More About GISCorps

GIS bus!Operating under the auspices of the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association (URISA), GISCorps coordinates short term, volunteer GIS services to underprivileged communities worldwide. Their volunteers' services support humanitarian relief, environmental analysis, economic development, community planning and sustainable development, GIS implementation and management, local capacity enhancement, aboriginal issues, health and education. See http://www.giscorps.org/

GISCorps can always use monetary donations for future needs and those who wish can fill out an online donation form at: https://www.urisa.org/secure/giscorps_donate.htm

See also Red Cross Katrina Relief info - http://www.redcross.org/news/ds/hurricanes/katrina_resources.html

Last Updated ( 17 October 2005 )
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