GIS Technology Helps Joplin Tornado Survivors

In disasters, GIS technology aids survivors and facilitates city reconstruction. After the Joplin tornadoes in May 2011, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began using GIS to help the small Missouri city rebuild. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used similar GIS solutions in the aftermaths of Hurricane Katrina, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and California wildfires.

In Joplin, the Corps used GIS technology to track debris and construction of temporary housing, schools, fire stations and other public facilities.

The tornado was a mile wide and six miles long. It killed 159 people, injured 990 and the damage is estimated to be around $3 billion. A class five tornado, the Joplin twister was the deadliest disaster to hit Missouri since 1947.

Now, it’s time to rebuild, which starts with removing the debris.

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, there was two million cubic yards of debris, the equivalent of 400 football fields. They had to organize the removal of the debris, and the best way to do that was using GIS.

Along with FEMA and other state and federal agencies, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers collected pertinent information layered to create maps designed to help with missions in the area.

In a recently released report, Stephen Long, GIS specialist, Philadelphia District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said: “We combined pre- and post-disaster aerial photography, parcel and property information from the city and county, sewer and water line information from utility companies and electrical line data. In addition, Army Corps staff in the field collected data using Global Positioning System units, which we added to this mix.”

These maps were updated daily and provided to the staff maneuvering 500 trucks around Joplin to remove debris. This was no easy task, as many street signs were blown away and structures destroyed.

GIS revealed drivable streets to the crews in the field and the residential and commercial properties that needed clearing.  The team overlaid the street information and placed color-coded box outlines around each property:

  • Red outline –property owners signed a Right-of-Entry form allowing them to clear the property;
  • Yellow outline—a form wasn’t signed yet;
  • Orange outline –the cleanup was in progress; and
  • Green outline –property has already been cleared of debris.

The collected debris was examined, sorted and much of it recycled.

“One hour in the desk can probably save a whole day for one person out in the field,” said Nicholas Laskowski, GIS specialist, Galveston, Texas District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Maps were created to ensure land was being considered for public use was suitable and safe. “The community selected several pieces of land to place temporary housing and to relocate critical public facilities, but before a piece of land could be selected, we had to make sure it met certain requirements,” said Howard Ruben, a compliance specialist, New York District. “The land had to be away from the devastation and any flood zones and be near water, sewer and electric lines, so that they could tap into these utilities.”

They also sought land near where original critical infrastructure facilities stood. For example, many schools wanted to be close to their original location. It was also important for the two temporary firehouses constructed to be relocated near their original sites to retain full coverage of fire services in their communities.

“Not only did our maps show where there was safe land away from flood zones and near utilities, but specific property details,” said Long. He continued, “In the background of the map, additional information could be pulled up by clicking on the property. This information included the owner of the property, tax ID numbers, and square footage, among other things.”

Meanwhile, as the U.S. Corps of Engineers were mapping rebuilding efforts, other GIS professionals were mapping the damage. Esri mapped the city through social media posts and others posted live maps using aerial imagery.

Although nobody ever wants to experience a disaster, it’s comforting to know that GIS technology helps society in the worst of times.

 

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