Why Isaac Was No Katrina
Seven years ago, geospatial professionals from all over the country independently volunteered their time to assist in the processing and preparation of data to support the rescue, cleanup and recovery efforts following Hurricane Katrina. We had no cloud computing; we became the cloud. We were processing on the first generation Pentium chips, and many people still had personal email addresses ending in aol.com.
Seven years ago, we were limited in our ability to share GIS information because of proprietary file formats in which much of our GIS data was produced. The Earth (well, Google Earth) had just been formed. We overcame these limitations and many more to create the initial dataset that displayed on a national stage the value of our profession.
My contribution and involvement came from a desire to learn GIS and expand my image processing skills in my personal time. I was a fledgling Manifold 4.0 GIS user but very experienced in image processing, orthorectification and mosaicking using PCI software. I was also a fan of James Fee's blog and often fielded questions about GIS through his sites. This is where I first saw the swell of people commenting on the effort all around to add intelligence to raw data and datasets and create map products that would help first responders aid the victims and help the rest of us make sense visually of what was happening.
Digital cameras for mapping were relatively new in our profession, and NOAA had purchased an Applanix DSS small format camera. I'm not sure whether they didn’t have the capability to process the images, were short on resources or were just being democratic in their process, but they posted images from the day after on their FTP site for all to see. This is where I jumped in. I had the tools and the time, so I began processing the images, creating orthos, color balancing and georeferencing them. I loved the work, and it was an exciting challenge that may have benefited others. I made the images available to anyone who wanted them and created some interesting maps and presentations using the power of GIS, as well as elevation models pulled from USGS and the mosaics that I had produced.
Many other individuals with GIS skills far beyond mine undoubtedly provided more valuable data. Kudos to ESRI (now Esri) and other software vendors for rallying their base of users and offering their software to first responders and onsite volunteers. URISA assisted in creating a network of professionals known as the GISCorps to help organize and sift through geospatial information. We did a lot of this work as volunteers, but many of us also did this work as professionals, creating final datasets and working with the Corps, USGS and NOAA for years to come to ensure that what happened following Katrina would not happen again.
As I watched the news of Isaac's landfall and heard about the preparedness, the strength of the levees and the infrastructure for evacuation, I couldn't help but think that we as a profession were a big part of that story. We really shined on that stage.
Satellite image of Tropical Storm Isaac courtesy of NOAA