FEMA turns to geospatial data for disaster monitoring, response


The Federal Emergency Management Agency increasingly is turning to geospatial informational displays to monitor and respond to natural disasters, said Mark Snyder, director of the FEMA Office of Transformation and Initiatives. He spoke Oct. 9 during the GeoInt 2012 conference in Orlando, Fla. (recordings of conference sessions are now available online).

In June, the agency made live a geospatial data viewing system that fuses data from multiple sources, Snyder said, and since then "it has become really the hub of our information sharing."

Briefings are less likely to occur with PowerPoint slides now, he added, as agency leaders have discovered the potential geospatial imagery carries.

For example, he said, given the recent increase in erratic weather patterns over the United States, FEMA now even monitors thunderstorms. A good way to determine severity is to overlay weather patterns with reports of power outages; by layering those data sources in real time, the agency is able to have a good idea which parts of the country are likely to be most affected by any particular storm.

Geospatial data also has the potential to significantly reduce the time it takes for disaster victims to receive federal help and costs to the agency for making post-disaster damage assessments.

Showing an aerial picture of clear devastation caused by the May 2011 tornado in Joplin, Mo., Snyder noted that "it doesn't take a broad scope of understanding of imagery or analysis to find out that these homes are not habitable," he said. By overlaying the path of the tornado against a map of the houses, FEMA was able to ascertain with 98 percent accuracy (when measured against actual in-person inspections) the extent of damage, Snyder said.

That opens the door to potentially millions of dollars of savings "just by not having to go through the traditional process of inspection," he said.

For more:
- watch the GeoInt 2012 panel with Snyder in it (embedded video)

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