Helping Communities Get to High Ground During Hurricanes


Location Intelligence Provides the Tools —

This past summer brought back-to-back hurricanes across the United States. Much of the resultant damage was unprecedented due to a combination of factors, including the intensity of the hurricanes, and the presence of
infrastructure and development in storm-prone areas that had yet to be tested against storms of such magnitude.

In the heat of the moment, first responders are focused on saving lives. Many difficult and critical decisions are made based on instinct, often with little situational awareness for those on the ground. While technology can’t prevent natural disasters, it can assist communities in building resilience and help mitigate uncertainty. Specifically, spatial analytics technology — which allows location and even time-related data to be visualized and analyzed on interactive online maps — gives responders and the public an edge in preparing for, responding to, and recovering from, disasters like the recent hurricanes.

Among the most critical steps in building resilience are understanding and communicating risk. Communities need to know and make their citizens aware of which locations are vulnerable to the effects of disasters. This knowledge allows communities to better prepare and understand how to prioritize resources during and after a disaster. In simple terms, this is achieved by mapping and analyzing where hazards, infrastructure, and people intersect, and then communicating the risk to the community. The recent flooding in Houston from Hurricane Harvey is an example of many residents and businesses being unaware that they were located in or near a flood zone.

To help citizens and responders understand risk and formulate the best strategies to deal with the effects of natural disasters, Pinellas County, Florida, developed a series of applications that allow the community to have true insight based on information derived from location intelligence.

Risk-Targeted Tools
The applications that Pinellas County built are for citizens and first responders alike. Both groups need access to useful data that allows them to determine what to do and when to do it, in the critical hours before, during, and after severe storms.

One of the major challenges that the county faces is determining which calls for service are coming from within evacuation zones. The Citizen Information Center Wellcheck app allows addresses to be verified via geocoding and layered with data on fire districts and evacuation zones so that the proper fire department is notified, and those within active evacuation zones are prioritized appropriately. This enables the county to more efficiently allocate resources to the places where help is needed most. (See Figure 1.)

Figure 1. The Citizen Information Center (CIC) Wellcheck app, which used address verification and geocoding to identify fire districts and evacuation zones.

Another app developed to assist local government agencies is Storm Impressions, which allows first responders to see where storm damage is located so they can determine the most efficient routes to take to assist those in need. (See Figure 2.)

Figure 2. The Storm Impressions app, a tool for first responders to know where storm damage was most severe in order to plan their routes.

To help citizens prepare for and cope with the effects of a storm, the county partnered to develop the Storm Surge Modeling app, which shows the strength of a storm at a specific location once a person types an address. The county also created the Know Your Zone app, which allows citizens to see the location of the shelters and accommodations that are closest to their home, or evacuation zones they might be included in. These tools were battle tested in Pinellas County as Hurricane Irma made landfall. The county even created an app on the fly for sewer lift stations to display the status of which areas had power and which didn’t so officials knew where to send portable generators.

A few common data feeds are immediately useful in preparing apps for disaster response. These include traffic (road closures and congestion), weather and storm tracks, precipitation forecast and accumulation amounts, and flood gauges. Preparing access to this data before a disaster hits saves precious time during response and recovery — first responders and operators rely on this data to make critical decisions.

It is important to bear in mind that no response effort occurs in a silo and that, especially during large events like Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, mutual aid from outside agencies is required for response and recovery. To be effective, multiple agencies and organizations need access to data to make the critical decisions that can save lives and property. Before a disaster, developing a well-thought-out method of sharing data with the public and partners facilitates productive collaboration during response.

People-Powered Analytics
During Hurricane Harvey, the crowdsourced information gleaned from social media sites, such as Facebook and Snapchat, was extremely important for rescue operations. These sources also helped provide a better understanding of the rapidly evolving impact of flooding across the city, as some areas were underwater while others remained dry. Readying access to information such as this is an important step for communities to consider. By combining such preparedness with the data mentioned above, first responders have better situational awareness to coordinate response efforts.

One way communities are creating location strategies to meet the challenges of natural disasters by leveraging crowdsourced data is the University of South Carolina Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute’s Map the Flood Together app. This online tool lets citizens report flood data, which is then integrated into interactive online maps. The collected floodwater depth and high-water marks are fed into a flood mapping model along with data from other sources, such as social media and US Geological Survey (USGS) stream gauges, to generate near real-time inundation maps. This enables improved situational awareness and better assessment of flood damage.

The Science of Where Help Is Needed
For organizations that respond to disasters, it is important to know where assets and resources are located. This means mapping not only resource locations as they are deployed for response and recovery but also shelter locations, Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (DSNAP) locations, and disaster recovery centers. Making information on open shelter locations available to the public can help avoid panic during an evacuation. Information such as points of distribution for drinking water, food, and other resources, is critical if the water distribution system is knocked out or homes are destroyed and citizens need supplies. For vulnerable populations that rely on certain medications or medical treatments in their daily life, helping them find the necessary medical resources could mean the difference between life and death.

Before a storm hits, the organization called Direct Relief uses demographic information to analyze the factors that can contribute to a population’s vulnerability to disasters. With this information, Direct Relief can gauge how best to support the health infrastructure that serves those communities. Direct Relief recognizes that in extreme-weather disasters such as Hurricane Harvey, the heaviest price is usually borne by the most vulnerable communities because, within cities, lower-income areas are often located in areas with higher flood risk. Before Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, Direct Relief created a map that showed exactly where these vulnerable areas were located in Houston, enabling informed decisions to be made as to how best to help these citizens.1

All too often, technology is left out of the preparedness conversation, and organizations respond to disasters by relying on institutional knowledge and instinct. As disasters increase in frequency and intensity, we must find a way to build on that knowledge, using technology to help us understand the changing world around us. Location intelligence provides true awareness of the potential impact of extraordinary events and of collective efforts during response and recovery, allowing communities to build resilience based on these new norms.

Location intelligence can help us transition from being reactive to proactive in making decisions involving disasters. The axiom An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure applies to preparedness, allowing response teams to save time in situations where every second counts. And understanding the where in our communities is key to this preparedness.



About Author

Ryan Lanclos is Public Safety Team Lead for Esri. He has more than 18 years of experience in GIS and government. For more information, please email or visit His twitter handle is @RyanLanclos.

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