GIS Wizards at IUPUI Help with Disaster Mitigation Planning
December 14, 2009
- Rich Schneider
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When you’re overwhelmed by flooding or storm damage and you want to mitigate the damage through better planning, who do you call? If you are the State of Indiana and facing pressure from the federal government to implement disaster mitigation planning, you call The Polis Center at IUPUI.
Known for its expertise in analyzing and visually presenting existing data linked to specific geographic locations, The Polis Center (Polis) - an academic center at IUPUI that is part of the School of Liberal Arts - was called on by state officials to help Indiana counties develop plans that would satisfy the federal Disaster Mitigation Act (DMA) of 2000. DMA 2000 was passed in response to the staggering increase in disaster recovery costs within the U.S. in the past 20 years. It requires every county in the U.S. to produce a hazard mitigation plan in order to be eligible for federal disaster funds.
“[The State] knew we were engaged with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and working with FEMA software that analyzes risks of natural and manmade hazards,” said Dave Coats, associate director at The Polis Center.
What drew the attention of the governmental agencies like a beacon was the national reputation of Kevin Mickey, director of training, outreach and education at Polis. Widely regarded as one of the foremost experts in the country in the use of GIS software for disaster mitigation planning, Mickey had developed the curriculum needed to train others in its use.
That initial contact five years ago led to the production of disaster mitigation plans for four southern Indiana counties. Since then Polis has developed an expertise in the use of geographic information systems (GIS) software that is nearly unrivaled, received additional grants to develop hazard mitigation plans for more than 70 counties in Indiana.
Polis is also working with Southern Illinois University Carbondale, University of Wisconsin Madison, and University of Minnesota Duluth to perform flood hazard mitigation risk assessments and played a leading role with Purdue University, Indiana State University, and Ball State University in conducting a flood analysis for every non-coastal county in the United States.
The county plans reflect critical infrastructure that was identified by officials in each county. That infrastructure is then mapped by Polis staff with a high degree of accuracy. Often, it is the first time the critical infrastructure has been mapped in those counties.“When we model a flood,” Coats said, “counties have a high degree of confidence as to whether a hospital or police station is inside or outside the boundary of a potential flood.”
Local officials also determine what kinds of other natural disasters or manmade hazards they want Polis to map.
“They can say we want you to model a tanker truck that is involved in an accident at a particular intersection, and it begins leaking chlorine gas. We want to know where will the gas go and who will be impacted by it,” Coats said. “They can say we have lots of tornadoes in the county and typical path is from southwest to northeast, and we can model the impact of a tornado going through the county seat, or we can model the impact of a 5.5 magnitude earthquake.”
The plans identify worst-case scenarios and the threats those scenarios pose to a county. The counties are then able to identify mitigation projects to reduce the potentially disastrous effects of hazards. For example, if a county’s fire trucks are housed in a pole barn equipped with regular garage doors, the models will show whether these trucks are likely to be trapped inside the garage when those doors are damaged by a tornado or earthquake. That particular risk could be reduced by hardening the fire stations to withstand an F4 tornado.
Communities also are able to identify buildings that are at high risk for repeat flooding and develop plans to purchase them.
Given The Polis Center’s leadership role in visualizing the effects of disasters, it has been approached by other groups wanting to mitigate risks from floods. The Indianapolis Museum of Art, among others, asked Polis to map an outdoor sculpture area it has on the museum grounds that is subject to floods.
Polis is also working with the Indiana Silver Jackets—a group comprised of representatives of the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, Indiana Department of Natural Resources, the National Weather Service, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the U.S. Geological Survey—to develop a real-time, web-based, automated assessment of flood disasters.
In locations like Ravenswood, where there are stream gauges that can transmit river flow data, the system uses National Weather Service data to quickly visualize the extent of flooding, for both neighborhoods and individual buildings, and calculate damages to the property.
Using detailed parcel information that includes the location of an individual structure, type of structure, value of the structure, replacement costs, and information that estimates the damage to a structure based on the amount of water in it, the Polis prototype system is able to determine how much water has entered each building and quickly calculate an overall damage assessment for the area.
“It is a quantum leap forward from what we had before,” Coats said.
“When there has been a major disaster, you want to get federal assistance flowing into community,” Coats said. “But you have to prepare a report for federal government that you have crossed certain thresholds, in terms of damage, to get the government to start responding to you. Sometimes that can take days to gather the necessary information. Our prototype is a tool that gathers that information very quickly and can greatly expedite the process of triggering federal assistance.”
With its ability to connect data and map and visualize hazards, Polis is working toward using its prototype to aid in damage assessments for other kinds of disasters, including hailstorms and tornadoes.
While its disaster mitigation projects are important, they represent only a portion of the work in which Polis is engaged. Polis employs GIS in a variety of ways for organizations and businesses in Indiana and beyond in areas such as health geographics as well as internationally in the humanities.
As Coats explains, “Every organization and business collects lots of data. We help them try to maximize the value of that data to their organization by using GIS technology to organize that data and to visualize it. Those simple steps are almost always helpful in adding value in terms of what they can see and then act upon.”
Among its most notable projects is the SAVI Community Information System for Central Indiana (www.savi.org). With over 100,000 indicators about 11 Central Indiana counties covering 19 years and 9 geographic units, SAVI is the nation’s largest community information system. SAVI collects data from approximately 30 data providers, geo-enables it, processes it into meaningful indicators, and publishes in map, table, and chart form. It includes data in the following categories: Arts, Culture, and Recreation; Demographics; Economy; Education; Health; Housing; Public Assistance; Community Assets; and Transportation and Mobility.
Over twenty cities nationally have sought Polis help in developing information systems, and Polis is currently using the SAVI platform to provide a community information system for Des Moines, Iowa.