GIS packages come to rescue
- By Bill Murray
- Feb 23, 1998
After a January storm left three inches of ice on parts of New England, New York and
Quebec, two geographic information system packages helped federal and New York state
officials organize rescue operations.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, Army National Guard and five New York state
departments cooperated using software from Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc.
of Redlands, Calif., and MapInfo Corp. of Troy, N.Y., said Dan O'Brien, program manager at
New York's Emergency Management Office in Albany, N.Y.
The disaster relief groups began cooperating after the ice storm began on Jan. 6. They
had no common networks and had to collaborate in a standalone computing environment.
Their individual maps and printouts made "a paper blizzard, but GIS provided a
graphical map of disaster situations" that officials could easily understand, O'Brien
said. New York Gov. George Pataki viewed the GIS maps to make decisions, he said.
"We had more than 3,000 troops dispersed over an area the size of Vermont" in
six counties, said J.C. "Pete" Kutschera, a spokesman for New York's National
Guard in Latham, N.Y. "It is important that all our people know the geography, the
topography and where they are," he said.
With power and telephone lines down and cellular networks jammed, officials located
radio towers and transformers using MapInfo Professional 4.5 running under Microsoft
Windows 95. They used terrain modeling analysis to demonstrate line-of-sight visibility
between towers. They also imported ESRI ArcView 3.0 data into the MapInfo software.
Color-coded grids showed electric power availability in given areas. Deep red meant
power was out, and white meant normal power. Throughout the two-week crisis, disaster
relief officials made high-density population areas a priority, O'Brien said.
Relief workers loaded the data into the GIS software from Microsoft Excel and local
databases. They printed out wall-sized maps on Hewlett-Packard Co. DesignJet 650C and 750C
large-format printers, and they posted the maps in the command center to show progress.
They also made slides in Microsoft PowerPoint to sort out the daily command structures,
Dynamic maps showed the status of roads in six rural counties where about 130,000
people live. "Every day was critical," O'Brien said, because bridges, homes,
roads and utilities were all damaged. Residents needed water, and dairy farmers needed
power generators to milk their cows.
MapInfo sent two systems engineers and a trainer from Troy, as well as PCs and
software, for about two weeks at no charge. Multiple state agencies contributed desktop
systems to run MapInfo Professional and ArcView. Most ran Win95, but some ran Windows NT
4.0 and Unix, O'Brien said.
The Field Property Services Office used ESRI ArcInfo 7.1.2 at agency headquarters to
locate the dairy farms from property records.
The high degree of collaboration, O'Brien said, resulted in part from the New York
governor's GIS management and data-sharing initiative, which has a World Wide Web site at http://www.nysl.sysed.gov/gis/.