Oklahoma Tornadoes Underscore GIS Importance

The massive damage from a record-breaking tornado, which swept across Moore, Okla. on May 20, is a stark reminder of how deadly and capricious nature can be. People died and were injured and entire neighborhoods were reduced to rubble and dust in a matter of seconds, leaving thousands homeless.

It is painful enough to see, forget experience. But those who learn GIS can take a little solace in one thought: the ways they use technology can greatly help with recovery efforts.

On a very simple level, such mass destruction is literally disorienting when, as CNN put it, “every landmark and sign your eye knows is suddenly gone and there’s miles of nothing in its place.” Lifelong residents, let alone emergency workers and insurance adjusters, can have a difficult time knowing where they are in an area.

Geographic information systems can be of great help. A robust system built in advance could show locations of houses, public buildings, businesses, utility poles, buried cables, storm drains, and other features that could be of importance to rescue workers and crews.

GIS software vendor Esri built a disaster response map for Moore, Okla., showing a great deal of information:

Explore the path of the tornado and its estimated damage radius and view shelters, relief locations, and charging stations. You can also select additional data layers for schools in the area, 2012 population density data, imagery, and more. See the real-time effects of the tornado via social media posts.

Such integration of information can be invaluable, particularly when used with satellite imagery showing before and after views, helping officials know where to concentrate their efforts.

Local personnel can integrate social media data with GIS mapping to provide enhanced information to first responders. National Weather Service officials geotagged photos for use with GIS software.

A number of technologies can help with insurance claims submissions and processing. By combining aerial photography and three-dimensional measurement, reports with exact measurements can aid adjusters as well as help crews assess property damage.

A GIS Ph.D. student who was from the Moore area is using camcorders with integrated GIS as he drives the streets, recording the damage. The resulting video will help track the recovery process.

Local agencies are also using GIS to help with recovery:

Damage surveys conducted in the days immediately following the deadly twister showed 82 structures with minor damage, 31 with major damage and another 93 that were completely destroyed, a report issued by Lynch said. The City of Shawnee’s information technology department with assistance from the county Assessor’s office and the Citizen Potawatomi Nation GIS department are working on plotting data points on an Arc GIS map and assimilating data, Lynch said. The maps will then be reviewed to see if any areas remain not surveyed.

It’s good to know that besides getting good work in their field, GIS experts can do good work helping others in time of need.

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