Defeating Disasters

How GEOINT helped America weather last year’s record storms


“Harvey” is a name Houstonians will never forget. The Category 4 storm arrived in Houston Aug. 25, 2017, then stalled, hovering for four days over Harris County. Although it was downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm 12 hours after its initial landfall, it nevertheless caused record damage. In fact, Hurricane Harvey is currently tied with Hurricane Katrina as the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, having inflicted $125 billion in damage over an area the size of Indiana.

Tragically, Harvey killed 107 people and destroyed or damaged 150,000 homes. Losses could have easily been much greater, however. That they weren’t is thanks in part to geospatial intelligence, panelists suggested Sunday at GEOINT Foreword, where they led a discussion on the growing use, increased sophistication, and current deficits of spatial analytics for disaster planning, prediction, response, and recovery.

“Spatial analytics are allowing us to understand the scope of events. But with any kind of breakthrough there are risks, opportunities, and challenges,” said panel moderator Mina Chang, CEO of Linking the World and international security fellow at New America. “Whenever a disaster hits, we are hit with a tsunami of raw data. What do we do with this? Can we process the data at the speed of collection when we have so much, or does it need to go back to a central point? How quickly can we get the insights to the operator on the ground?”

The panelists to which Chang posed these and other questions were: Chuck Delaune, senior director, disaster technology humanitarian IT, American Red Cross; Michael Ouimet, manager, critical information systems, Division of Emergency Management, Texas Department of Public Safety; and Ted Okada, chief technology officer, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Delaune opened the panel on an optimistic note. “These are really exciting times for the Red Cross,” he said, describing two geospatial technologies the Red Cross has in its tool belt: Red Cross Visual Interactive Event Wizard (RC View) and Volunteer Connection. Designed to help the Red Cross manage events and volunteers, respectively, both have geospatial capabilities that have given the Red Cross something it never had before: real-time situational awareness. “We’ve come light years in terms of what we can do and how we do it … in the aftermath of an event.”

Ouimet echoed Delaune’s sentiment. Once skeptical of GEOINT, he witnessed its value firsthand during Harvey and shared what ultimately made him a believer.

“What’s becoming important … for emergency management is [having] better visualization tools so we can better communicate with politicians, decision-makers, and the public,” explained Delaune, who said the next generation of GEOINT promises to deliver exactly those tools—3D models, for example, that illustrate what a flood event might look like in a way that persuades citizens to prepare for an impending emergency better and sooner. “[Geospatial] tools can save time, and time saves lives in emergency management.”

Closing the panel was Okada, who shared how FEMA is embodying at the federal level the same ethos Delaune is embracing at the state level—but with 2D maps instead of 3D visualizations.

“Maps really assert something about the nature of reality,” Okada said, alluding to the mapping products that are part of Hurricane Incident Journal, a GEOINT-powered decision support tool FEMA made public for the first time in 2017. “The more we actually put these tools in the hands of decision-makers … the better off we are. Because as they begin to toggle layers off and on, they are then able to effectively understand the consequence and potential outcome [of their decisions] … to actually respond better.”

Saved lives are the end goal; GEOINT is but a means to achieve it.

“We make decisions [to affect] the outcome for a survivor,” Okada concluded. “That’s the highest priority.”

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