The Big Picture: Mapping a Disaster

March 28, 2011
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A flight survey in June 2010 captures the protective boom surrounding Queen Bess Island, a critical bird nesting island, located north of Grand Isle State Park, La.


When the British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon Mississippi Canyon 252 well (MC252) ruptured on April 20, 2010, sending millions of gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, Matrix New World Engineering Inc. (Matrix) was one of the first firms to respond to the disaster. The firm was in a good position to do so. Just one month earlier, Lawrence Malizzi, PG, vice president and director of business development, under the direction of Dennis Petrocelli, senior vice president, had launched a new spill response management team focused on providing Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) and habitat restoration services. “We thought that the market for this service would be small harbor spills occurring within harbors and coastal waters along the Eastern seaboard and Gulf Coast,” Petrocelli says. “No one envisioned a disaster on the scale of what actually occurred.”

In April, Matrix’s team of scientists was deployed to the Gulf Coast to respond to the incident. Matrix was able to secure timely contracts and arrange for labor and financing to rapidly respond to the ever increasing disaster--in large part because of the firm’s background and expertise in GIS and digital mapping.

Founded by Jayne Warne, PE, in 1990, Matrix initially focused on providing environmental and geotechnical solutions in New Jersey. Over time, the firm expanded both its services and locations. By 2003, the firm had diversified to include civil engineering and land development support services, including land surveying and GIS. “The company recognized the importance of GIS early on,” Petrocelli says. “GIS provided unique visualization, plus it was rapidly becoming the industry standard for data depiction.”

From the beginning, Matrix focused on its people, building a strong staff of experienced land surveyors and GIS specialists and equipping them with state-of-the-art tools and training. “We wanted to ensure that our staff would be capable of responding to real-time issues that may require rapid response efforts throughout the country,” Warne says. Notably, the firm developed an approach of cross training its technical staff so that individuals would be able to assist with the field survey work and then take the data collected and produce GIS work products.

The firm’s revenue, client base and project diversity grew, and Matrix developed a strong reputation for delivering high-quality services and work products within budget and on schedule. In 2007, Warne was named as an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year finalist. Soon after, Matrix invested in more equipment and technology to complete GIS and mapping work products. By 2010, the firm was ready for its next big challenge.

A Grand Isle Beach field map produced July 2, 2010, for the Grand Isle Wildlife Operation, Jefferson Parish Division 1.

That challenge came in the Gulf, where Matrix worked in alliance with O’Brian & Gere and Versar to provide wildlife biologists and natural resource professionals to assist the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services (USFWS) and Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries (LAWF) in wildlife capture and monitoring the migratory pathway of the oil plume. The monitoring that Matrix provided allowed federal and state agencies to better define the location of response efforts pertaining to wildlife capture and boom placement/replacement strategies across the salt marshes of the Mississippi delta. Matrix also worked closely with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), United States Coast Guard (USCG), and other federal and local agencies providing bird rescue/recovery and boom status data to assist in spill cleanup and recovery efforts.

Under the Incident Command Structure (ICS), Matrix provided GIS mapping support in the initial phases of the spill response at the Grand Isle, La., Wildlife Operation Center. Matrix was retained to assist USFWS and LAWF with daily updating and reproduction of Grand Isle Wildlife Operation - Zone Patrol Map using ArcMap/ArcGIS 9.3 and Trimble Nomad digital mapping technology. Information obtained from the field biologists were used to generate daily reports and maps illustrating where wildlife was being captured and habitats that required boom on a real-time status. The overall map database consisted of seven water zones and one land-based or beach zone in the Grand Isle territory. Beach zone patrol maps were also created for assessments of four other respective islands--Elmers Island, Grand Isle, Isle Grande Terre and Grand Terre Island East--all located within the Plaquemines, Jefferson and Lafourche Parishes.

Every morning at the six o’clock debriefing meeting, the Matrix team would provide field biologists with aerial imagery and their respective zone patrol maps for the territories they were assigned to cover. “In order to maximize the area covered by each wildlife capture team and eliminate overlapping of resources, patrol zones were established,” explains Rejina Sharma, a Matrix ecologist and environmental scientist. “Aerial imagery showing detailed patrol zone boundaries were provided as an excellent field reference to the wildlife capture teams to cross-check with what they were seeing out in the water and along the shoreline. The aerial images also showed where sensitive habitats, such as nesting islands, were located in addition to oil slicks and boom conditions. The office team was in constant communication with the field staff and was recording their observations into a digital format compatible with GIS.”

Matrix also maintained daily ArcMap databases for oiled wildlife and recovered carcasses through radio dispatch communication and Trimble Nomad devices on a real-time basis. The Matrix staff trained field biologists on the use, reporting and troubleshooting of the Trimble Nomad devices. “Incorporating daily Trimble data and field observations into GIS gave the team the opportunity to overlay different scenarios and situations across the patrol zones to better serve the USCG with an accurate account of where to focus on response efforts and resources for the next day,” Sharma explains. “We were getting an abundance of information in the field. Incorporating it into GIS-compatible software was crucial to the success and coordination of response efforts.”

Data and maps gathered collectively from different agencies within the ICS were used by the Houma ICS GIS Branch to provide interactive online mapping tools.1

In late June 2010, prior to and after Tropical Storm Alex, the Matrix team conducted flight surveys of nesting bird colonies and boom conditions with the USCG to visually assess the impact to the natural resources. The flight survey was conducted using a Geospatial Experts GPS-Photo Pro camera system and the GPS-Photo Link software, both of which were listed on GSA schedule GS-35F-0350S. The flight survey provided the ICS and USCG with fast, reliable GPS photographs and coordinates for use in GIS, Google Earth, and Microsoft applications. “Being able to conduct aerial surveys enabled us to cover a large area over a short period of time, so we could relay that information to the USCG for immediate response to protect the nesting islands,” Sharma says.

“Over the course of our efforts in Grand Isle, we were able to save over 500 birds and countless acres of habitat,” she continues. “It is with extreme gratitude that I can walk away knowing our efforts have made a significant difference to the protection of the natural resources of Louisiana.”

Note

See www.fws.gov/home/dhoilspill/maps.html.

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