How NGA assists in disaster response

How NGA assists in disaster response

Although the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s primary customers are the Defense Department and the intelligence community, it often provides federal, state and local responders with their first look at a disaster. 

In March, for example, NGA helped the Federal Emergency Management Agency with geospatial analysis of flood damage in Texas and Louisiana. Creating over 2,200 assessments highlighting affected and destroyed commercial and residential properties as well as impassable roads, NGA provided critical data to state, local and federal emergency response officials as they established evacuation routes.

“FEMA uses our products to determine and prioritize affected populated areas in need of assistance,” said Brian Cameron, team lead for NGA’s disaster response. Although FEMA also uses imagery from NASA or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) satellites, that's usually in…the recovery phase,” he said. “We’re in the response phase right up front, immediately,” he said.

NGA’s data is fed to the regional GIS officials who create their own maps and models based upon what NGA analysts provide.  NGA generally utilizes Esri’s ArcGIS cloud based mapping platform, Cameron said.

As FEMA liaison, Cameron’s office is uniquely positioned to assist federal agencies in domestic disaster response.  While NGA -- and most military and intelligence agencies -- is barred from conducting surveillance over or within the United States, NGA’s disaster response office has a proper use memorandum to view and provide analysis of imagery over the United States.

The rest of NGA cannot look at domestic imagery, but the disaster response office has “a very specific task,” he told GCN. Federal agencies such as FEMA must make a formal request to his office in order to provide these capabilities.  “We cannot operate domestically without that lead federal agency request,” he said.

“[C]ommercial space assets enabled NGA to provide crisis support to federal, state and local first responders during several recent natural and man-made disasters,” NGA Director Robert Cardillo told the House Armed Services Committee in March.  “During the 2015 Alaska wildfires, NGA partnered with the National Interagency Fire Center to provide geospatial and imagery analysis on more than 60 high-priority wildfire sites to support disaster relief and rescue efforts. NGA also supported the Federal Emergency Management Agency in fiscal year 2015 with flooding and damage assessments in South Carolina and Georgia.”

NGA’s disaster response office also has responsibility to help FEMA “become geospatially sustainable,” he said.  FEMA analysts already examine data and images from NASA and NOAA satellites in federal disaster response, but NGA aims to help them hone their geospatial and imagery analysis capabilities, he said. 

“We’re able to exploit imagery because we have software, we have analysts who are trained at looking at imagery and doing timely and relevant damage assessment…What we’re doing is providing timely geospatial graphics, not just for FEMA senior leadership, but also for U.S. government senior leadership.”

About the Author

Mark Pomerleau is a former editorial fellow with GCN and Defense Systems.

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