When disaster strikes, surveying, mapping and geospatial technology play a crucial role in assessing the impact. The data they provide is invaluable not only for short-term response and long-term rebuilding efforts, but also for disaster preparation and real-time event tracking. In the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, which ripped lives and infrastructure apart, geospatial product developers and service providers are uniting. The imagery and geographic information systems (GIS) they have to offer are delivering the data first responders, government officials and insurance providers need to effectively address the devastation in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico.

Geospatial Data Coalition

A partnership between the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), Vexcel Imaging and Esri exemplifies the honorable collaboration taking place among geospatial specialists to assist with hurricane-related issues. The outcome of the initiative is an assortment of geospatial intelligence solutions that integrate georeferenced, high-resolution aerial and street-side data on Web platforms within 36 hours of capture.

The partnership is a unique one, particularly for the NICB. After all, the NICB is a non-profit with a mission that is historically focused on insurance fraud investigation, not hurricane response or geospatial professionals. What brings the alliance together is recognition of each actor’s strengths and resources, and the power they have in supporting disaster resilience when combined.

The NICB may not have been created as a disaster response organization, but it works closely with insurers and law enforcement regularly. That long list of contacts benefits tremendously from geospatial data in disaster scenarios. Nearly three years ago, the NICB launched a disaster response and digital operations program, headed by Ryan Bank, to lend its expertise in the aftermath of events like Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. Vexcel Imaging has client contacts in the geospatial profession who own Vexcel Imaging products and can put them to work to acquire geospatial data from affected areas. Esri brings a mix of resources to the table: GIS software, insurance-industry and first-responder contacts who use their software, and knowledge acquired from past experience with disaster management.

“Geospatial is the single most important thing, from my perspective, in this entire process, both from a disaster response standpoint, but also the long-term recovery and insurance standpoint.”

– Ryan Bank

Before the fruits of the coalition’s labor can be achieved, geospatial technology and service providers need access to affected locations, which is often restricted. The NICB can provide that access. During the interview for this article, Bank was accompanying data collectors in the lower Florida Keys, closed to the public with police checkpoints at the start of every street. “That doesn’t apply to us,” Bank says.

He is excited about the opportunity to serve as a liaison between first responders, insurance companies and the geospatial community. “Geospatial is the single most important thing, from my perspective, in this entire process, both from a disaster response standpoint, but also the long-term recovery and insurance standpoint.”

Feedback on acquired geospatial data has been overwhelmingly positive, and Bank says the private insurance industry and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) are ripe for increased use of geospatial data and technology, to say the least. To highlight just how impactful geospatial resources are in the aftermath of natural disasters, he points to the case of an NICB member property insurance company in Florida. “The devastation was so much that they were looking at having to basically rent a cruise ship to use as a floating hotel and hire as many adjusters as they could to bring down here,” he says. “They said they were able to look at our imagery, and our imagery had the resolution and the detail enough that they could make assessments for a lot of the properties all from just that imagery. They could do it remotely and do not have people in harm’s way on the ground here. So it’s much safer, much more efficient and better for all of their customers all the way around.”

Pre- and Post-Hurricane Aerial Imagery

Responding to the back-to-back-to-back occurrences of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria can best be described as “frantic,” according to Jerry Skaw, sales director of North America for Vexcel Imaging, who is working closely with the NICB and Esri. He says there are short windows of time for data capture and no margin for error since end users tend to need data as soon as possible.

Geospatial service providers including Sanborn Map Company, Keystone Aerial Surveys Inc., Quantum Spatial and GPI Geospatial provided aerial data acquisition and processing in areas affected by the hurricanes using Vexcel Imaging products. The UltraCam Eagle collected 6-inch-resolution nadir imagery, the UltraCam Condor collected 6-inch-resolution orthoimagery, and the UltraCam Osprey collected 3-inch-resolution nadir and oblique imagery. On-the-ground image capture using the UltraCam Mustang 360-degree car-mounted mobile sensor was also conducted.

Hurricane Irma photo map
Photo Courtesy Esri

In Texas, data was acquired for greater Houston and cities along the Gulf coastline. In Florida, the Florida Keys, Jacksonville, Fort Myers, Naples, Marco Island, Okeechobee, Sarasota, Tampa, Bayonet Point, Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Port Charlotte and Orlando were accounted for. Crews also covered a 1,200-mile strip along the northern coast of Puerto Rico, including San Juan. The data was published on the Web using Esri ArcGIS software to overlay the imagery onto maps. It gives end users the ability to zoom in and out, compare pre- and post-hurricane imagery, take measurements, and integrate insurance customer data so policies are tied to each address.

“The strength of the coalition and the strong teamwork across companies was key in pulling this off, and sets us up for future disaster response scenarios,” Skaw says. “It was an unprecedented collaboration involving many of the major players in this industry working together. But the role of NICB aligned us and made it possible for us to coordinate a large-scale imagery response program.”

While the capture of aerial imagery post-hurricane is key, the availability of pre-hurricane imagery is important in assessing impact as well. Nearmap, an end-to-end aerial imagery provider, has experience collecting, processing and delivering aerial imagery across the U.S. multiple times per year, storm or no storm. When disaster strikes, Nearmap collects new imagery and the prior aerial data they have stored comes in handy for comparison.

“Last year we captured Charleston, [S.C.], after the hurricane came through … In some cases you could see roof damage prior to the hurricane and there was the same roof damage after,” says Sean Kelly, director of U.S. survey operations at Nearmap. “So you’re able to look at it six months ago and say, ‘You already had that roof damage. You can’t file a claim saying the hurricane did this.’ I think that’s pretty valuable.”

Robert Carroll, vice president of Nearmap, highlights the fact that relying on post-disaster aerial imagery alone can often lead one to think that a given property was not impacted, when in fact it was. While the roofline may look perfectly intact, a building may have moved slightly off of its foundation. In this case, imagery collected beforehand illustrates the movement over time. “For example, in the Houston area and those locations, we collected as recently as May,” Carroll says. “We have that pre-event imagery and we go in as close as possible within the acceptance of putting airplanes and pilots [in the air] and not getting in the way of things. We try to get down there and capture the truth on the ground immediately after the event.”

In the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Nearmap planes equipped with Nearmap’s proprietary HyperCamera2 system collected 7-centimeter orthoimagery of affected areas including: Corpus Christi and metropolitan Houston in Texas; and Naples, Fort Meyers, Cape Coral and the Florida Keys in Florida.

Teams collected data in the morning and delivered it by afternoon. The aerial imagery can be viewed on Nearmap’s Web-enabled MapBrowser viewer and WMS, WMTS and TMS API for seamless integration with Esri, AutoCAD and custom GIS applications. Looking ahead, Carroll says he is excited about efforts the company is taking to provide aerial data that helps identify at-risk properties before disasters occur.

Bringing the Data Together with GIS

The bigger picture of providing data that supports disaster-related initiatives before, during and after they take place is a matter Ryan Lanclos, public safety industry team lead with Esri, takes very seriously. He prefers the term “disaster management” over “disaster response,” pointing to the relevance of geospatial technology in each phase of disaster scenarios, not just after they touch down.

For example, communities regularly use GIS to understand where they are most vulnerable to different hazards like flood risk and wildfires, which informs what protective measures should be taken to maximize disaster resilience. “I see that value as probably paramount. If you’re not prepared, it’s much harder to respond and recovery takes longer,” Lanclos says.

In addition to involvement spanning across disaster-timelines, Esri’s involvement spans across geospatial data categories, providers and consumers. After all, GIS brings multiple layers of data together under one roof, simplifying analysis. Esri has an established disaster response program that includes a number of partnerships. Lanclos says a major area of its disaster response role, aside from supporting agencies that use its solutions, is data access.

Imagery is an important form of data, and Esri’s partnership with Vexcel Imaging and the NICB falls under the data access umbrella. Another example is real-time data, especially valuable for response. In the case of evacuations, when people are assessing how to exit their residence and where to seek shelter, Esri uses data from providers like its partner Waze. The map app facilitates a two-way conversation between the government and the public. Citizens who document things like down powerlines and debris on the road can bring them into a GIS environment. “At Esri we partner with Waze and through their API allow people to overlay data that the crowd is collecting in the Waze app on top of their operational data about where they’re making decisions for routing resources around blocked roads or rerouting individuals,” Lanclos explains.

Hurricane Harvey precipitation map
Photo Courtesy Esri

Esri also plays a part in real-time weather data connection, crucial in major events like hurricanes with forecasts that change constantly and storm surges that are recalculated continually. Esri partners with the federal government though the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and with the private sector through AccuWeather. These collaborations allow people to view where rainfall is occurring and where wind is picking up in a GIS environment for situational awareness. “When you overlay all of those things together, that’s where we play; connecting the dots and allowing people to really get good awareness and start to drive to an understanding of where and when to position resources,” Lanclos says.

A Long Road Ahead

The damage done by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria will not be fixed quickly. As Lanclos points out, recovery is typically a much heavier, drawn-out burden than initial response. The effects of the storms will linger for months and years to come, increasing the demand for geospatial services in impacted areas.

“You see boats in trees. I saw a small plane that had broken up in the middle of a residential neighborhood and we weren’t near an airport,” Bank says, describing what he saw on the ground in Florida after Hurricane Irma hit. “You drive for hours and everything that you pass has just major devastation. It really is unbelievable. … You get to see places at their worst, but usually that also means that they’re at their best because everybody comes together and just helps each other out... So it is tremendously heartening at the same time as being very sad and obviously communities destroyed.”

In the September edition of POB Solo Notes, Richmond Krebs Sr., PLS, who owns Louisiana-based R.W. Krebs Professional Land Surveying LLC, says Hurricane Katrina, which hit the New Orleans area back in August 2005, was the catalyst for significant company growth. “We are still providing surveying work even today on homes which are being razed or rebuilt 11 years after the hurricane. Builders, developers and community organizations continue to buy vacant lots and blighted properties left in those conditions from Hurricane Katrina and are building beautiful new homes or remodeling old ones,” he explains.

This was the case after an F-4 tornado struck northern Illinois in April 2015 as well. Shawn R. Van Kampen, PLS, owner of Illinois-based W.E. Hanna Surveyors, details the ongoing need for surveying post-tornado in a guest column in the April 2016 issue of POB. Four days after the storm, Van Kampen contacted the county planner offering his surveying services and was asked to wait until after initial cleanup commenced. He invited fellow surveyors from the Northeast Chapter of the Illinois Professional Land Surveyors Association (IPLSA) and students from Northern Illinois University (NIU) to join in the rebuilding efforts.

Not only did the group re-survey the affected area of Fairdale, Ill., since many landmarks were gone; the entire town and adjacent affected parcels were monumented and topography was provided for future site plans. All of the field work, data compilation and analysis were donated, totaling approximately 300 man hours. Surveying work was eventually utilized for the rezoning of Fairdale to a private urban development, a new collection sewer system, a natural gas pipeline and a community Wi-Fi tower.

“Not all disasters have the need for all the surveying services required in Fairdale, but most need some. By getting involved early, surveyor associations can provide valuable information and services to affected areas. This can solidify our position as the noble profession we know we are,” Van Kampen says.

As geospatial technology improves, its role in disaster planning and response continues to expand. For example, when land surveyors at the New Orleans district responded to 300 feet of levee slide on the Lower Morganza Guide Levee during the 2015/2016 winter flood on the Mississippi River, cutting-edge drone and 3D point cloud technology boosted workflow efficiency. The use of drones allowed engineers to visualize and assess levee slides without having to go into the field. The 3D point clouds gave them a multidimensional view of what the levee slide looked like.

As Andy Raichle points out in a POB February issue guest column, some of the nation’s finest accomplishments are the result of trying circumstances. He highlights modern consumer-based banking during the 1920s Great Depression, public air travel in the 1940s during World War II, and the interstate highway system during the 1950s Cold War. “The sum quantity of resiliency efforts has created a new industry within the survey, engineering and planning community,” Raichle says.

But the role of geospatial professionals is not limited to disaster response; industry members are encouraged to embrace the business opportunities that exist in disaster preparation as well. Through pre-event efforts, geospatial resources can help mitigate the negative impact of hurricanes and other devastating events. “Protective planning remains the primary objective,” Raichle says.

Examples of geospatial community support for Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria relief are numerous. The responsiveness of surveyors, mappers and geospatial professionals across the nation adds hopefulness to a series of otherwise ill-fated events. The sources for this article highlight just a few of the many, many businesses offering services and solutions by way of geospatial data. Additional firms involved in hurricane response include, but are not limited to: Airbus Aerial, GeoCue Group Inc., Maser Consulting, Remote GeoSystems Inc., Surdex Corporation, Surveying and Mapping LLC, TerraSond Ltd, and Woolpert.

The National Society of Professional Surveyors (NSPS) Foundation is accepting donations toward hurricane relief through its Disaster Relief Fund at https://nsps.site-ym.com/?page=DisasterRelief.