Using GIS Technology to Support More Rapid Damage Assessments

Author: Jim Weldin, Senior Emergency Planner, IEM

In the aftermath of a disaster, such as last week’s Hurricane Matthew, one of the crucial tasks of an Emergency Operations Center (EOC) is to determine the extent of impact to the community. This article will discuss the increasing use of Geographic Information Systems as a valuable tool in this process. By modifying and sharing information with the public, both residents and businesses can self-report their damage assessments to EOCs, which helps to develop more immediate situational awareness of the disaster impact. 

Initial Preliminary Damage Assessments. Typically, the initial preliminary damage assessment (PDA) is used to determine if the state can qualify for a Presidential Declaration of Disaster, which activates the support of FEMA and Federal Government assets under the Stafford Act. This PDA provides a quick snapshot to support the request for disaster declaration to the President.

While the disaster declaration request is an early and significant action, another crucial step is to determine the needs of the community. This is very much dependent upon an assessment and analysis of damage reports to determine both the impact to critical infrastructure and key resources, and also to determine which businesses and residents are impacted, and what may be the unmet needs of the affected group.

The process of conducting damage assessments can require a significant amount of resources and become a cumbersome and time-consuming process. While this slow process is occurring, emergency managers, elected officials, and FEMA personnel are desperately attempting to determine the impact of the storm, which then directs relief efforts.

New Trends in Damage Assessments. A growing trend among jurisdictions is to ask residents and businesses to self-report damage by filling out and submitting a form on Emergency Management Agency websites. This provides Emergency Management Agencies with valuable information and assists in their situational awareness of the storm impact.

There may be a more efficient way to self-report damage using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology. Tools to enable this process are readily available and many jurisdictions are now providing their PDA teams with GIS applications on tablets or cell phones. GIS capabilities can capture key information and geo-code the exact location of the damage. Maps can then be created that highlight the areas most impacted. This, however, still requires teams to physically visit each site.

An alternative method is to use a GIS application to capture more simplified but crucial data that residents and businesses report to EOCs. This will enable the EOC to receive a quicker assessment of the extent of damage. The Global Position System (GPS) that is enabled on smart phones or tablets will provide the key information from the self-reporting provided by the public. After capturing the requested information, a picture of the damage can be uploaded into the form. On the back end of the process, the EOC can establish a dashboard to capture all information submitted. This process allows instant development of mapping to highlight areas impacted. The data fields can also be used for analysis.

By overlapping property assessment information for each parcel, EOCs can establish a rough estimate of the dollar amount of damage. The ability to provide decision makers with color-coded mapping to pinpoint more significant areas of damage is a powerful descriptive tool.

While this is not an application for Federal assistance through the FEMA Public Assistance Program and the Individual Assistance Program, this process does provide a strong analysis capability to determine which areas were hit the hardest, and what type of assistance may be required.

Jim Weldin is a Senior Emergency Planner for IEM. He is a Type III Planning Section Chief for Delaware’s Incident Management Team. He also spent five years assigned to the New Jersey Office of Emergency Management where he worked various State EOC activations including Hurricane Sandy, for which he served various positions in the Planning Section such as the Situation Unit and Resources Unit. He was assigned to the Joint Field Office (FEMA 4086- DR-NJ) as the State of New Jersey Planning Section Chief or Deputy Planning Section Chief. He also served as Co-Chair for the New Jersey Coastal Evacuation Task Force and the New Jersey Sheltering Task Force.

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