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Storm Center: New Tools for the Postmortem

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Another storm has come and gone, and as the cleanup gets started another series of cities sends armies of people with clipboards out to survey, assess, reach out.

Except things have changed. In some ways damage response after a storm is foundational science: observe, investigate, ask questions. Science gathers data; science uses data; science shares data. And that’s great for science and research, but nonscientists can forget how great it is for them too. So what people do after Irene will reflect new capacities of that observation and data gathering. Raleigh, North Carolina, recently made some steps forward.

 

Map showing severity of property damage through hot spots, or density analysis, which provides a more comprehensive picture of where damage occurred and at what level of severity.

After a tornado ripped through on April 16 – early in this spring’s tornado pandemic – and did $115 million of damage and killed three people, the Emergency Command Post was full of the usual police and fire officials and the public works director to manage the response.

 

But sitting along with them was Colleen Sharpe, manager of the city of Raleigh’s Geographic Information Services. Raleigh has been doing this since Hurricane Fran, of 1996, when the information technology director and Sharpe decided to put the city’s investment in workstations to work, plugging DEC workstations directly into the dirty power lines available during the storm. In those days, nonemergency calls – trees down, lights out, lines down – were dispatched to the command post, where police officers wrote them on flip chart. Sharpe and her crew would map them late on. It was slow, but it worked – the city manager, watching the developing map over Sharpe’s shoulder in 1996, saw the severity of the damage and changed the city’s response to address the reality of that storm, which did $2.4 billion in damage in North Carolina.

The mapping only has more value now. Computer-aided dispatch now copies all emergency calls to the city’s GIS system, where they instantly become part of the property tax data set, making almost any attribute instantly mappable.

“We were creating a lot of maps for people to begin seeing immediately,” Sharpe says of the April 16 tornado. “All roads that were closed; where stoplights were out; all reports of damage. By Sunday [the tornado came through on Saturday evening] we could really quickly identify a path.” The National Weather Service generated maps too, but nowhere near as quickly – or as usefully – as the realtime GIS crew.

Raleigh residents had an online app to help them figure out whose job it was to haul off storm debris.

 

Sharpe’s maps helped police make decisions – for example, an offline electric substation in a bad neighborhood was prey to people stealing wires, which would have had dire consequences for thieves when the substation reenergized. The police needed to guard the substation, which meant pulling officers from intersections without functioning signals. Maps giving instant information about signal function enabled them to make quick and good decisions.

But the GIS department made its greatest contribution in the days after the storm, when it created a damage assessment app for tablet computers. So instead of walking around with reams of paper forms for the 24-hour and 72-hour data assessments FEMA requires, emergency workers were connected to GIS when they approached properties – and thus knew property age and ownership, protecting victims from form madness and keeping information pouring into the office. Damage assessment was simple – minor damage (up to 10 percent of the property); major damage (11-75 percent); and destroyed. Inspections workers became a sort of ad hoc crew of crowd-sourcing scientific observers.

“The City of Raleigh finished our forms in a day and a half,” Sharpe says. Nobody else in the state came close. When governor Bev Perdue was estimating on television that the state had suffered $100 million in damage, Raleigh GIS was already estimating $115 million of damage in the city of Raleigh alone. The maps the department generated went up within days. GIS also quickly created an online app for people coming in for construction permits and asking for the reduced fees offered to those affected by the tornado. Another app, also online, allowed residents to click on their homes to determine which debris removal company was assigned to their lot.

GIS observed from more than just the ground, too: “We had aerial photography vendors in the air on Tuesday,” Sharpe says, providing quick and easy verification of tornado damage – and plenty of arresting before-and-after images, enabling public utilities workers to check on and prioritize easements and manholes without having to dedicate days to simple investigation.

Finally, Sharpe and her crew instantly shared the data they’d collected. Online local newspaper the Raleigh Public Record had Sharpe’s data in Excel files within three days of the tornado, and had cleaned it up, imported it into Google Fusion, and placed the resulting map online six days after the tornado hit.

It had 2000 hits its first day up. More important, says RPR editor Charles Pardo, “Seeing that data visualized was one of those starting moments where you really see the big picture.” Pardo had been out interviewing and documenting the storm “within minutes of getting the all clear from the National Weather Service. Cars were tossed around like they were toys. Hundred-year-old trees fell were completely uprooted. But getting that visual of the damage moving from south to northeast through Raleigh gave me a perspective I would never otherwise have had.”

 

Scott Huler About the Author: A writer who commonly explores science, culture, and the relationship between the two. Follow on Twitter @huler.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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