When a Hurricane Hits

Lessons from Katrina

Just one example of the network assisting during Katrina is the Baton Rouge General Hospital. The facility was operating on power supplied by a backup generator, and had local phone service, but no long distance. Fortunately, a broadband Internet connection was live. Vonage in New Jersey donated the hardware as well as phone services for the hospital. A Radio Shack in Baton Rouge located all the necessary VoIP equipment to connect doctors to patient records, and communication with outside doctors, insurers, family members, etc.

Nine VoIP converters and Dell-donated, wireless-enabled laptops with the corresponding software installed allowed the hospital to set up a public exchange for communications and data sharing. "We don't care what type of radio you have, or voice device," says Wright. "It could be a Motorola, M/A-COM, Nokia, etc. All we do is take that voice transmission and convert it to IP, and it moves along the network just the way an e-mail would."

Proper planning, he says, starts today. "You may not have everything you need today, but have you planned to get what you need in the next five years?" asks Wright. "Are you buying technology that doesn't have planned obsolescence around it? Are you buying standards-based technology?"

Mapping a vision
Culture of preparedness. Or so Lew Nelson, also a presenter with Wright, calls it. This 30-year veteran of law enforcement believes in the power of data, and even more than that, the power of shared data.

"One of the first things that any agency wants to know is: How big is it?" says Nelson, of a disaster situation. "What are my opportunities to address this problem? How do I get my arms around it? How do I get that situational awareness that gives me an understanding?"

Katrina was definitely a lesson in geography, he explains. A friend of his called it "combat GIS."

Lesson One, he says, is there is very little preparedness on a broad scale for geospacial infrastructure. Each agency might have had its own information, but there was little or no data sharing occurring, or redundancy of data. "They had to engage in heroic efforts to get new computer systems, to find the data they'd lost, process it, model it, find applications to work, etc.," says Nelson, industry solutions department and law enforcement manager of ESRI.

Lesson Two: Initial Geographic Information Systems (GIS) response was very expensive because it was very fragmented, he explains. "Hundreds of people were engaged in geospacial work, some of them probably doing the same thing, and there were a lot of resource expenditures to recreate data and develop applications on the fly."

Lesson Three: Data sharing was extremely difficult. With so much data in machines underwater and without local backup, the acquisition of data took time. Due to a lack of shared standards and data models, many applications could not be shared between agencies. "At the same time," Nelson says, "there was a lack of sharing policies to give authority to quickly share data."

Lesson Four: Lack of integrated vision. "What I mean by an integrated vision is the lack of data models created a situation where there was no immediate capability between agencies to fuse dynamic data with other available or acquired data to provide a common operating picture."

Starting at the local level is a first step toward progressive data sharing efforts. Cities can share with counties, and up the ladder to states and federal agencies.

The need for standards here is as important as in the communication aspect. "You need to have a consistent, integrated, multi-participant shared accessible system," says Nelson. "Somebody has to take a look at the larger vision." Since Katrina, Nelson has seen governmental groups step up to the plate and initiate data sharing.

GIS was used for many purposes during Katrina and other disasters worldwide, such as 9/11, the tsunami and Pakistani earthquakes. Among these uses are search and rescue, basic dispatch, damage assessment, shelter and hospital location, vehicle routing, evacuation planning, debris removal, resource management, demographic analysis, public information, and more. "I have resources here and need to get them there," explains Nelson. "What roadways are open? What vehicles do I have to transport them? Who is affected? Where did they go?"

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