GIS Moves Online, Enhances Disaster Response with New Data Sources

John Heltzel may have delivered the deadpan quote of the week at the 2013 Esri Users Conference in San Diego, when he told a group of senior business executives, “It is not a good day in emergency management when the guy on The Weather Channel says he is coming to your state.”

It happened to Heltzel on March 2, 2012, when powerful tornadoes tore through four states, causing 41 storm-related fatalities and wreaking $3.1 billion in damage. Twenty-two of those deaths occurred in Kentucky, where Heltzel is a brigadier general in the Kentucky National Guard and director of the Kentucky Division of Emergency Management.

Yet last year’s deadly tornado outbreak was hardly an isolated event for Heltzel. Over the past five years, Kentucky has had 10 presidentially declared disasters—a proclamation that makes federal funding available for emergency relief and reconstruction once a state has exhausted its ability to meet its citizens’ needs. Heltzel describes a freakish ice storm in early 2009 as Kentucky’s “single greatest catastrophe in 100 years,” with ice-coated trees causing statewide power outages in sub-zero temperatures—and resulting in 24 deaths.

2009 Ice Storm, Natural Disasters, Extreme Weather

2009 Ice Storm in Paducah, KY (NWS)

To Heltzel, the key to emergency response and disaster relief is maintaining “situational awareness”—especially regarding available resources and infrastructure. “It’s all about ‘What do I have? What do I need? And how do I get it there?’” he says. And the key to real-time situational awareness, Heltzel says, is online geographic information system (GIS) mapping technology, especially as new analytic software and tracking capabilities have been integrated over the past two years with Esri’s flagship product, ArcGIS.

Throughout last week’s user conference, Esri emphasized how it’s been working to integrate “location analytics” with a host of business intelligence products, from Microsoft’s Excel spreadsheets to Teradata systems for data mining. The Redlands, CA-based developer of GIS software also said ArcGIS is now available online, giving users access to higher-resolution, 30-meter imagery for the entire United States. More demographic products also are available, along with imagery maps of soils, geology, vegetation, habitat, and species throughout the U.S.

At the same time, Esri has been working on a different front with specialized consulting firms like Washington, DC-based Witt O’Brien to integrate incident command systems designed to help officials manage their disaster response with online GIS mapping technology that shares imagery and data—creating a common operational picture for … Next Page »

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Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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