The April 20, 2010, explosion aboard the Deepwater Horizon oil platform about 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana marked the beginning of the biggest ecological disaster in the history of the United States. Experts from around the nation immediately rushed to the region to offer their support in the damage assessment and cleanup efforts. The work was, and still is, overwhelming. But one tool in particular has aided some of the project teams in the battle to protect and restore the nation’s coastline--an accurate and well-organized GIS.

ESRI’s new ArcGIS 10 platform provided the basis for much of the geospatial analysis and mapping work handled by the team. All images are illustrative only and are courtesy of ESRI.

It wasn’t that way initially. Twenty days after the explosion, I received an e-mail from Andrew (Drew) Stephens, founder and director of The GIS Institute, a nonprofit organization that offers GIS support, planning and training around the world. Stephens was heading to the incident command post (ICP) in Houma, La., a small town 60 miles south west of New Orleans, and he invited me to join him. Within hours, my bags were packed, and my journey had begun.

Stephens and I arrived at the ICP just after midnight. We obtained our badges, cleared security and, after a brief tour of command center, proceeded toward the GIS Lab. On double duty was Waypoint Mapping’s Devon Humphrey, geographic intelligence officer and resident National Incident Management System (NIMS) expert. NIMS was developed as a systematic approach that allows coordination of multijurisdictional entities within all levels of government and private sectors to work together in times of crisis to reduce the loss of life, property and harm to the environment. Humphrey explained the existing state of the geospatial data and the massive amounts that were pocketed across the ICP. He emphasized the need of the Louisiana parishes and federal agencies to be able to expeditiously use GIS functionality in their planning and response initiatives. He was certain that ramping up an enterprise GIS within the framework of this major incident was achievable. The team was determined to make it work.

Taming the Wild GIS

Part of the focus of the GIS Lab was to analyze and display two aspects of the spill--protection strategies and oil extents, which are loosely referred to as the booms and plumes. Booms are fence-like barriers that are placed in the water to round up and contain oil, allowing skimmers and other methods to capture it. As a first line of defense in protecting the shoreline, the booms received a lot of attention. The plumes showed the outlined polygons of the extent of the oil spill--the mixtures of oil, sheen and emulsion that became known as the “giant blob.”

Imagery-derived boom and plume data were provided daily by the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, and other data were incorporated into the day’s latest common operational picture (COP). Tactical situation maps, map books and various other custom maps were also produced by our team.

Initially, these data were scattered on laptops, flash drives and desktop computers. A store-bought external hard drive was used as a temporary file server as plans for new workstations and an ArcGIS Server churned through the system. Everyone was working 14 to 18 hours a day, seven days a week, scrambling to get their hands on data and provide the necessary information for their respective sections; there was little time to consult. Some order had to be brought to the geospatial system, and our team was the one reponsible to make it happen.

The GIS Smoke Jumper Team, as we became known, comprised experts from all across the United States--talented NIMS-certified individuals who dropped everything to lend their support. Experience on the team ranged from 5 to 20 years and included project management, process, workflow, mapping, database, mobile, programming, and imagery expertise. What was ingenious about the team was that we were able to switch roles as the need arose. It was not uncommon for a data guy like me to be found producing map books at 0600 hours. Training was crucial, and shadowing each other helped to fill the gaps.

We faced notorious red exclamation marks littered across ArcMap MXDs as we siphoned scattered shapefiles and lone personal geodatabases into our temporary holding area on the infamous T:\ drive, then to an in-lab ESRI SDE box, and eventually to a dedicated United States Coast Guard server. Many map sources had to be repointed several times. This scenario became my inspiration to create an adaptive workflow process that would establish a consistent rhythm for the team.

As the Data Czar in me took over, I began unraveling our processes and diagramming our map products and services beginning with the source data and the times we received them, and ending with a deadline for the finished product. All entities were embedded on a 24-hour timeline. In an environment with no time to spare, processes needed to take on a revolving and adaptive characteristic. Adhering to this structure enabled rapid assessment and enhancement of our daily work flow. Hence, as the dynamic environment of the spill changed, so did our workflow and, ultimately, our processes. This modus enabled the team to consistently meet the demands of all our service areas.

Making a Difference with Data

Though the push for maps forced many of our resources into mapping mode, the importance of the getting the data and process correct was recognized by our leadership team. We leveraged cutting-edge imagery from NGA as well as key technology and resource support from ESRI. It was upon ESRI’s new ArcGIS 10 platform that we were able to masterfully execute our objectives to provide timely and accurate geospatial analysis and information to the various agencies involved.

The GIS Smoke Jumper Team was able to provide more than 150 layers of data, an ArcGIS Server implementation, ArcGIS Mobile deployment in a cloud, and a flex viewer that continued building functionality. An enterprise environment was ramped up in a matter of days, and a methodology for capturing, storing synchronizing, replicating and disseminating spatial data was instituted in a time frame that would typically take a year or more to set up, test and deploy. NIMS kept our focus on the incident and chain of command and, as a result, our structure and purpose were unwaveringly focused on the ecological disaster and not concentrated on the development of a corporate GIS.

When considering the vast extent of the damage caused by the oil spill and the 11 lives lost in the oil rig explosion, our efforts seem small. But in GIS, accurate and organized data are vital to gaining key insights and making informed decisions. In that sense, I’m appreciative that I have been able to play a supporting role.

Prepared to Respond

The National Incident Management System (NIMS) provides a systematic, proactive approach to guide departments and agencies at all levels of government, nongovernmental organizations and the private sector to work seamlessly to prevent, protect against, respond to, recover from, and mitigate the effects of incidents. But it isn’t just a system for first responders. Anyone can take advantage of free NIMS training courses offered by FEMA to become prepared to respond in the event of an emergency. For surveyors with mapping and data management expertise, having NIMS training can allow you to be a valuable and even vital part of recovery efforts wherever disaster strikes.

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