Geocoding and the GISCorps
November 10th, 2005 by JTJ

An interesting piece today from CNN on the value of geographers in the hurricane rescuse and recovery business.


'Geocoding' used to locate Katrina survivors

Street addresses not very useful after hurricane hit

By Marsha Walton

— Police, firefighters, and Coast Guard crews may be the first to come
to mind when naming the lifesavers during disasters such as Hurricane

It might be time to add geographers to that list.

the sometimes desperate hours following Katrina's landfall, experts in
geographic information services — GIS — helped search and rescue
crews reach more than 75 stranded survivors in Mississippi.

of their most valuable tools was a process called “geocoding,” the
conversion of street addresses into global positioning system (GPS)

With streets flooded, street signs missing, and
rescue crews unfamiliar with the Gulf Coast area, street addresses were
not very useful.

“They would get phone calls, or the Coast Guard
would come in with addresses in their hands and say, 'I need a latitude
and longitude for this address.' So the GIS professionals would do a
geocoding, give it to the Coast Guard who got on helicopters and saved
lives,” said Shoreh Elhami, director of GISCorps.

co-founder of GISCorps, said that since 2004, the organization's
volunteers have responded to disasters such as the Asian tsunami and
Hurricane Katrina, as well as efforts to provide humanitarian relief,
sustainable development, economic development, health, and education in
all parts of the world.

The Corps had 20 volunteers on the ground in Mississippi less than 48 hours after Katrina's landfall.

is part of URISA, the Urban and Regional Information Systems
Association. Elhami said more than 900 qualified volunteers have GIS
experience, and range from from city and state government officials to
academics to people in private industry.

Volunteer Beth McMillan,
a field geologist and professor at the University of Arkansas in Little
Rock, worked in Pearl River County, Mississippi, a couple of weeks
after the storm.

“A couple of days after the hurricane hit, I
felt so down, and wondered what I could do. I could give a little bit
of money, but that doesn't seem very satisfying. To be able to have a
skill that can be used is much more empowering, it doesn't make you
feel so helpless,” said McMillan, back in Little Rock.

Although rescue efforts were over by the time she arrived, there were scores of other tasks she and her colleagues completed.

had laptops and map plotters, and a database that the group from the
first week had put together. One map we produced showed cell phone
towers in the county, and the estimated coverage of those towers.
Everybody was communicating with cell phones and they needed to figure
out where to go within the county to talk to one another,” McMillan

McMillan described the volunteer efforts as a sort of “Maps to Go” for a wide range of people needing immediate information.

maps detailed road conditions, power outages, underground gas storage,
and facilities with hazardous materials. Agencies from FEMA to the Red
Cross to local utilities relied on the information that they constantly

“This is how technology can make a difference,” said
David Shaw, director of the GeoResources Institute at Mississippi State

“It was a great team effort,” said Shaw, for a crisis that he said had deteriorated into a Third World situation.

said he was amazed at the talent and the creativity of, basically, a
roomful of strangers at these county Emergency Operations Centers.
While eventually satellite links and Internet connections made the
tasks easier, in some cases large amounts of data had to be driven
several hours from one site to another.

Volunteers are never sure
of the conditions they might face when deployed to disaster sites or
developing countries. Assignments usually last between two weeks and
two months. McMillan said her many experiences “roughing it” as a field
geologist helped her deal with the living conditions in Mississippi.

said be prepared for really hot weather, and bring a sleeping bag,” she
said. “I slept in an empty U.S. Department of Agriculture building on a
cot, with probably several hundred other people. But it did have power,
bathrooms, and showers, so conditions were not as bad as they could
have been,” she said.

She and her colleagues ate MREs (military meals ready to eat) and worked 12-plus hour days every day.

did get a chance to tag along one afternoon with a couple of National
Guardsmen from Mississippi on a trip to the coast. That was one of the
most memorable experiences of my life. I've never seen such
destruction, and the only way to really understand it is to see it in
person,” she said.


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