Disaster Discourse: The Hagerty Blog

Geographic Information Systems (GIS): An Innovative Emergency Management Solution

At its core, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is the ability to capture, store, develop, analyze, and manage data as it relates to its location on the surface of the Earth. That essential ability of GIS to join, compare, evaluate, and ultimately display data that is spatially referenced to its actual position on the Earth’s surface, allows users to visualize data trends, patterns, and relationships at any known location. These capabilities enable accurate visualization of data and better understanding of its implications — empowering the user to make more efficient and well-informed decisions. Moreover, the increased use of mobile devices has made it even easier to send and receive spatial data from nearly anywhere, which in turn improves data quality and accuracy. These advances in technology are propelling the growth of the GIS market.

U.S. Geological Survey – 3D Elevation Data for El Paso, TX: Source

When it comes to the field of emergency management, the GIS market is projected to grow from 2.3 billion in 2019 to 9.4 billion by 2030. Capabilities include services ranging from data collection and database design; to creating custom web mapping applications utilizing high resolution datasets derived from LiDAR; as well as the growing services such as Real-Time Location data analysis and 3D visualization. Incorporating GIS into disaster response and recovery cycles has improved planning, response times, collaboration, and communication during the most challenging and dynamic circumstances – providing the private and public sectors the ability to collaborate more efficiently and effectively. Below are several examples of ways GIS can be use throughout the disaster management cycle.

Preparedness: Hazard Mitigation Analysis (HAZUS)

One of the most accurate ways of determining whether completed mitigation projects achieved their intended outcome is by performing a Loss Avoidance Study (LAS). The primary purpose of performing a LAS is to compare the damages associated with a specific hazard, both pre- and, post-mitigation. The standard procedure for performing an accurate LAS calls for conducting an Enhanced Structure-Based (Level 2) HAZUS analysis. HAZUS is the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) GIS-based loss estimation software, which simulates custom Flood, Earthquake, and Wind hazard scenarios, utilizing detailed structure-specific data and built-in damage functions to calculate potential physical, economic, and social losses.  This level of enhanced structure-based analysis more accurately reflects building occupancy and construction quality over the default building data provided, this significantly impacts how the damage estimates are calculated for the disaster scenario.

In addition to providing the required level of analysis needed to perform an accurate LAS, a Level 2 HAZUS analysis can also provide the critical multi-hazard loss estimation data needed to update a State Hazard Mitigation plan. As an example, the State of Pennsylvania recently updated their State Hazard Mitigation plan utilizing a Level 2 HAZUS analysis – requiring that some national inventory data be replaced with local information. This ultimately provided the state with a more accurate loss and risk assessment which could then be applied to better inform local regulations, building codes, and mitigation strategies, as well as assist with planning evacuation routes, and plan for future development.

Public Engagement & Risk Communication

With flooding being one of the most frequently reoccurring disasters, it is essential to understand one’s flood risk, especially considering the many factors that influence flood risk change over time due to new development, a changing climate, and aging infrastructure. This is one of the reasons FEMA has developed the GIS based Flood Risk Products available through the Risk Mapping, Assessment and Planning (Risk MAP) program. These FEMA Flood Risk Products provide critical risk-related information that not only can enhance hazard mitigation planning, but can also serve as an invaluable risk communication tool for the public due to its ability to evaluate flood risk down to individual structures. Risk MAP data combines high resolution GIS flood hazard data with FEMA regulatory flood risk information to assist and support a community’s overall floodplain management and hazard mitigation strategy.

Hagerty has over a decade of experience working with state and local officials, as well as public stakeholders across the nation utilizing these Flood Risk Products to help guide floodplain regulations and land development decisions. Hagerty also brings many years of technical expertise developing FEMA Regulatory and Non-Regulatory Products that communities can leverage to identify areas with elevated flood risk and, to determine beneficial mitigation factors such as flood depth and changes in the regulatory floodplain to increase the effectiveness of proposed mitigation measures.

In addition to developing the necessary flood related risk information, Hagerty also has practical GIS experience integrating these Flood Risk Products into dynamic and informative ESRI StoryMaps. A StoryMap is a GIS-based solution that can tell the unique story around a project, using actual photographs, drone video, and web maps that can be easily shared or embedded within a website.  One of the most effective ways Hagerty can assist a community is by creating a StoryMap, they can be designed to fit countess emergency management applications, providing the critical communication tool needed to engage the public in an interactive meaningful way that will increase awareness and promote resiliency.

As an example, this StoryMap on a project in Beatrice, Nebraska was developed to calculate the benefits of a flood mitigation acquisition program as part of FEMA’s Community Engagement & Risk Communication efforts. It not only provides hazard related GIS data to the public in a unique way, but it also describes lessons from the past, mitigation methodology, valuable risk assessment information, and ways the viewer can get started in their community.

Recovery Operations

GIS is also an excellent tool for communities that are actively engaged in the disaster recovery process. For example, GIS can help to locate, identify, and track the status of projects and recovery efforts within a jurisdiction.

In the City of Panama City, Florida, Hagerty developed a GIS-based web application to convey to the public, in a clear and visually appealing way, how far the community has come since the disaster. The web application was embedded into a website that Hagerty previously created for the City, which showed the locations of new businesses and status of FEMA Public Assistance projects. In addition to representing the data in a spatially accurate, fully customizable manner, the web-map also provides key project related information such as budget, point of contact, and estimated completion date.

One GIS web application developed showcased the many Public Assistance Recovery projects within the community and could be updated throughout the entire recovery phase to assist key stakeholders and inform concerned local citizens.

Screenshot of ArcGIS Web Map – City of Panama City, FL: Source

Hagerty Can Help!

The examples outlined above are just a handful of possible GIS-based emergency management solutions. Hagerty not only has the ability to perform highly accurate GIS based hazards assessments, but also the capability and expertise to deliver creative, interactive ways to visualize data, and effectively communicate risk for our clients across all aspects of emergency management.

Our GIS program supports both public- and private-sector clients in developing customized, innovative GIS-based solutions that meet their specific needs, while effectively communicating unique hazard and risk information in a more impactful way. For more information on how Hagerty can develop a custom GIS solution tailored to meet your community’s specific needs, please contact us.

Rob Lange, CFM is Hagerty’s GIS Coordinator, responsible for designing custom GIS solutions and applications for our clients. Prior to Hagerty, Rob Lange spent extensive time deployed to Florida and Georgia with FEMA following Hurricane Michael. During this time, he worked directly with local officials to assist them in their recovery by recommending cost effective and more resilient building techniques to rebuild damaged public infrastructure. While deployed Rob also conducted Benefit Cost Analysis studies for large-scale projects and developed Hazard Mitigation Proposals for a variety of different hazards and structures. Prior to joining FEMA, Rob has 15 years of experience as a Risk Analysis and Floodplain Mapping subject matter expert supporting various planning, floodplain management, and hazard mitigation projects. Additionally, he was the GIS lead for the State of Colorado Enhanced HMP, the State of North Dakota Enhanced HMP, as well as numerous other state, county, and local hazard mitigation projects.