Hurricanes are among the most expensive natural disasters in the U.S., affecting more than just the coastal communities they ravage.

Experts predict these storms will only get stronger as ocean temperatures continue to rise, and although hurricanes cannot be stopped, GIS technology may be able to help analyze and model these killer storms.

This topic, based on the Arc StormSurge framework used to integrate hurricane storm surge modeling and GIS, is one of several disaster-themed sessions at this year’s Environmental Systems Research Institute (Esri) International Users Conference in San Diego.

This new GIS approach generates coastal flood maps based on High Performance Computing (HPC) hurricane storm surge simulations. Information from Digital Elevation Models (DEM) is combined with model results based on unstructured finite element meshes such as water levels to refine the delineation of the flooded areas.

Dr. Celso Ferreira, assistant professor at the department of civil, environmental and infrastructure engineering at George Mason University, is presenting a case study for Hurricane Irene (2011) at the Esri conference. “The idea is to use computer methods to simulate flooding of hurricane storm surges and then integrate those models to our GIS interface,” Ferreira said. “We developed a data modeling template and customized it for hurricane flooding.”

These new tools and customized geodatabases will provide data within the GIS framework, making it easier to interpret and access by uploading and sharing on the Internet.

Ferreira said the GIS method will help not only in forecasting, but also in planning. With the ability to simulate different hurricane scenarios, scientists could forecast how much water could flood a specific area in the next 10, 50 or 100 years and could model results to create more accurate surface models and flood maps. The increased accuracy of these flood maps would dramatically improve predicting disaster zones and creating evacuation routes. Such maps could even help insurance companies determine where homes are most likely to flood.

Ferreira said this new process is a more automatic way of modeling the information as opposed to the manual and labor intensive process of the past. During recent storms, measuring stations along the coast have gathered more measured data than before. Ferreira is now working toward combining this data with the models to create better maps

Hurricanes aren’t the only natural disasters in which GIS can lend a hand. Firefighters and emergency response workers in Colorado used an Esri-based Online GIS mapping system to determine the precise extent of damage as more than a dozen large wildfires burn in national forests and other areas.

Though GIS technology cannot predict where a wildfire will start, it can be used to quickly analyze geographic data about fire-contributing conditions to help with wildfire planning and prevention. Based on models of wildfire behavior, GIS can even be used to simulate changes in fire direction and intensity to predict where a fire will spread.

This year’s Esri conference is expected to attract more than 14,000 attendees. The institute, which began as a company dedicated to helping land planners and resource managers make well-informed environmental decisions by providing geospatial information, has since developed disaster management capabilities to support those affected by wildfires, hurricanes, flooding, earthquakes and tsunamis.

Speakers at this year’s conference will address topics including GIS applications for disaster incident management, integrating GIS in a new emergency operations center, hurricane analysis and modeling, and methods of estimating and creating models of future wind losses from hurricanes.