The Big Picture: The role of mapping in assessing disaster damages

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Almost two years to the day of the Joplin tornado anniversary, a devastating EF-5 tornado hit the town of Moore, Oklahoma on May 20, 2013. The path of the Moore tornado was 17 miles long and two miles wide.   After a devastating event like a tornado, assessing the damages and painting a picture of the affected community is of utmost importance.  The better information first responders and emergency managers have about damaged areas, the more effectively they can prioritize areas of needs and deliver services.

From the start of the response, geospatial teams from across multiple agencies and the private sector had a game plan and an expectation of deliverables needed to bring clarity to a complex situation.  Almost immediately after the tornado, our geospatial analysts began producing baseline information maps (i.e. demographics, population density, and economic statistics) to provide situational awareness to the response teams. 

map of tornado damagePublicly available aerial imagery was leveraged with demographic information to show the impact of the tornado’s path (Map Credit: ESRI)

Within the first few hours after the tornadoes struck Moore, Civil Air Patrol (CAP) was leveraged by the State of Oklahoma to collect aerial imagery along the tornado path. FEMA added to this effort via a Mission Assignment to collect ground photos of the devastation.  All of the images collected from the CAP team were geo-tagged and uploaded to the FEMA Geoplatform. In addition to the CAP imagery, FEMA leveraged a new DHS contract for high-resolution aerial imagery. Combined, this imagery assisted us in delivering house by house geospatial damage assessments of the affected area.  A major contributor to this effort was the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).  Collectively, the FEMA/NGA team was able to deliver highly accurate geospatial damage assessments within four days of the event. These assessments were leveraged by various response and recovery programs across all levels of government to focus their efforts on the most heavily impacted sites.

map of tornado damagePublicly available imagery was leveraged to see a before or after of the affected area. (Map Credit: ESRI)

One of the main goals of FEMA’s geospatial team is to provide the accurate, readily available, and timely information to support first responders and local officials.  By posting the data we collect and analyze publicly, private companies (such as Google’s Crisis Map of the Oklahoma Tornado) can leverage government provided information to reach a larger audience during times of crisis.  Survivors can use the interactive maps to check the affected areas, and more importantly their personal property from a remote location, without disrupting response efforts or putting themselves in dangerous conditions. 

The groundwork for the geospatial team’s response to Moore was laid two years earlier in response to the Joplin tornado of May 2011. After the Joplin tornado, a pilot project was launched to conduct house by house damage assessments using aerial imagery.  The initial pilot project produced over 8,000 detailed damage assessments which leveraged National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) imagery.  In addition to NOAA imagery, CAP was identified as having the capabilities to collect initial situation awareness aerial photos.  The assessments completed during the pilot program were done rapidly and proved to be very accurate. 

Timely, accurate information displayed on a map has always been useful to emergency responders – and I’m looking forward to continuing our work and contributing to the emergency management team’s response to emergencies.  For more on the efforts of FEMA’s geospatial team, visit our Geoplatform.

Here's the current, clickable Oklahoma tornado situation map, along with other images from the May 20 tornado that struck Moore:


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map of tornado damageNational Geospatial-Intelligence Agency preliminary damage assessments displayed on FEMA'’s GeoPlatform. (Map credit: FEMA)

map of tornado damageTornado situation map with ground and aerial imagery. The viewer can click on any symbol to display data and photos associated with that particular location. (Map credit: FEMA)

Last Updated: 
06/11/2013 - 12:55
Posted on Fri, 06/07/2013 - 13:31
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