Edited Version September 30, 1998 Transcript
EIIP Tech Arena Online Presentation

"Spatial Data and Geographic Information System (GIS)
in the Emergency Management Lifecycle"

Mark Whitney
FEMA HQ Mitigation Directorate

EIIP Tech Arena Moderator: Amy Sebring

The original transcript of September 30, 1998 online Tech Arena discussion is available in EIIP Virtual Forum Archives (http://www.emforum.org). The following version of the transcript has been edited for easier reading and comprehension. Typos were corrected, date/time/names attributed by the software to each input were deleted but the content of questions and responses are as stated by each participant. Answers from the participants to questions by the audience are grouped beneath the appropriate question to facilitate meaning.


Amy Sebring: On behalf of the EIIP, I am pleased to welcome you to a special event in our Tech Arena. Our topic today is "Spatial Data and GIS in the EM Lifecycle"

Please hold all questions and comments until we get to the Q&A portion of the program about half past the hour. We will review the instructions at that time.

I will also point out for any newcomers that when a full URL is typed in the message area, it becomes a hot link, so you can just click on it, and a web page will display in another browser window.


And now, it is my pleasure to introduce Mark Whitney, Geographer with FEMA HQ Mitigation Directorate. Mark has extensive experience using GIS for emergency management purposes, especially in analyzing repetitive flood losses.

Welcome, Mark, and thank you for taking time to be with us today.


Mark Whitney: Hello everyone and thanks for the invitation to be hear today. I need to just open with a statement about how anything I say might be dangerous and therefore should not be construed as "official" FEMA policy, or practice, and does not touch on many of the Geographic Information System (GIS) activities underway at FEMA now or in the past.

Still, I hope this presentation will be of interest and perhaps contribute to ideas that will encourage the development of this and related technology in Emergency Management. I believe that GIS over the coming years will become a prime tool in revolutionizing the way we, as a group, do business.

I'll start with a "current events" GIS example. Hurricane Georges. How much has the National Flood Insurance Program paid in communities near where he came ashore?

[Slide 1]

Mark Whitney: And, where are the historical problem areas for repetitive flood losses? How do they relate to the rainfall from this event?

[Slide 2]

Mark Whitney: Of course, all of the data in this and the last image is linked to detailed attribute data: address, owner, policy number, # of payments, dollars paid, coverage amounts, dates of losses, Base Flood Elevations (BFE).

The Federal Insurance Administration (FIA) National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) was very lucky with Georges. Though the losses are large and individually devastating, they could have been on order of magnitude larger and more devastating if the track had run into New Orleans with more force.

GIS can/is also be used to model different hazard events to quantify the potential hazard and exposure to same. HAZUS is a FEMA product that performs earthquake loss estimates. Wind and flood components are next.

Now for a light-hearted metaphysical/hazards analysis using GIS: Did you ever wonder about why the Higher Power(s) felt the need to distribute hazards in a "fair way?"

[Slide 3]

Amy Sebring: This is a very large image, we will pause a bit here to load.

Mark Whitney: The distribution of earthquake fault lines and 40 years of hailstorms for the lower 48. Western US, Appalachia, you take EQ; everyone in between you get hailstorms (and incidentally tornadoes, makes you wonder what the New Madrid area did to deserve all three).

In all seriousness, GIS is a great tool for organizing, analyzing, and visualizing the Who, What, When, Why, and WHERE of practically everything we have, do and experience. This same data/analysis can serve the entire EM lifecycle through a process of updates and improvements of relevant data shared between the phases.

The WHERE can be considered a spatial index of sorts. I can't think of a single thing that has to do with Emergency Management that somehow does not have a "WHERE" associated with it.

New tools as well. Did you notice the yellow track heading across the US in the last slide. That was me with a little $170 Global Positioning System (GPS) unit on the dash of my truck as I drove home to Utah for vacation. (Thankfully no hail/EQ to speak of, just one small funnel cloud).

Disaster planners, workers, other city officials such as police and fire, will in the future use such gizmos to collect all sorts of data that will be fed real-time into computers for analysis and product preparation by a GIS. The products of the future will not be limited to just paper maps either.

Field units/inspectors will/some do already be able to receive track data (for routing on their GPS), images, and database attribute information directly in the field to help them organize and perform their functions better/cheaper/faster (to borrow a phrase from the Spin Machine).

And of course, out of all of this, some sort of standards will have to be developed so that the information used in all phases of the EM Lifecycle can be shared back and forth between cooperating Local, State, National, and International entities.

Not nearly so high tech as that dream world scenario, here is an example of data collected by a team on the ground for purposes of identifying potential substantially damaged structures for East Grand Forks.

Using GIS and phone book data we very quickly were able to estimate the number of residences in the Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA) for Grand Forks, and also the approximate number of structures on the "wet" side of two proposed levee alignments for both communities.


Mark Whitney: Information is a basis for planning and implementation of recovery and mitigation activities. The same information is then recycled and reused for preparedness and response, back to recovery/mitigation -- all digital. (What a concept).

The ground teams collected similar data for all affected communities along the Minnesota and Red Rivers on the Minnesota side (Region V). This information was used to produce spatial data empowered web pages, and other reports used by the Local floodplain management personnel, State and the FEMA Region.

In the beginning, there was light and Dan Cotter (my first boss at FEMA). Dan led the way in convincing the Federal Insurance Administration (FIA) National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) to modernize flood hazard mapping (a work still in progress). The NFIP is FEMA's only regulatory program and is the cornerstone of flood hazard mitigation in the USA.

Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRM's) are the basis for regulating floodplains in more than 18,000 communities in the US. Identification and mapping of the 1% annual chance exceedence flood Special Flood Hazard Area (SFHA) (and 0.2% "500 Year Flood").

Local community ordinances using the FIRM make the community eligible to participate in the NFIP making flood insurance available to residences, businesses, and public buildings.

The first FEMA GIS applications were related to making this FIRM data available and much more useful via GIS. Contractors: Michael Baker Jr., Dewberry & Davis (Harvard Design and Mapping (HDM) for quality assurance) using ESRI ArcInfo and Intergraph MGE to digitize the paper FIRM's.

Process to convert 80,000 paper Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRM) began in 1989. Digital FIRM (DFIRM) benefits were to include:

• Automation of FIRM creation and distribution;

• Automated methods for flood insurance policy FIRM zone verification/lookup (a completed GIS lookup utility combined the DFIRM and Census Tiger Street Data and development of Flood Risk Directories (FRID) were both stopped by U.S. Congress);

• NFIP marketing studies;

• Disaster applications/lookups;

• Floodplain Management applications;

• Automated tool for planning, preparedness, response (evacuations...), recovery, mitigation.

DFIRM Program made slow and expensive progress through 1993 before changing to Q3 for a quickly produced (at the expense of some quality/completeness, no BFE's) baseline product as a result of immediate disaster needs (1/10th the cost to produce). The Q3 is a completed for nearly 1,300 counties, the VI and PR.


Mark Whitney: Q3 - National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) - Important Notes:

a. You will need a geographic information system or desktop mapping system with several base cartographic data themes (transportation, hydrography...) in order to make use of the Q3 data.

b. There are several important considerations related to the spatial accuracy of the Q3 data and the intended usage of this flood hazard spatial information product discussed in Q3 related documentation. The FEMA Map Service Center Homepage includes links to this information <www.fema.gov/msc>.

In short, the Q3 is a baseline digital product that has been produced for more than 1200 counties and independent cities. Included in the Q3 file are FIRM 1% and 0.2% annual chance flood hazard boundaries, COBRA zones, some floodways, political boundaries, FIRM panel neatlines, and 1:24,000 quad panel neatlines.

Q3 data are on CD-ROM in three vector data formats: USGS-DLG3, MapInfo.TAB, and ArcInfo Export.E00. Each Q3 file is county-wide. Again, detailed information and sample data can be found on the FEMA Map Service Center Homepage, <www.fema.gov/msc>.

One cool advantage of having GIS/digital flood hazard data is being able to display the flood hazard in a way that might heighten awareness of the flood hazard theme for the general public. California seems to be half under water at 1% - 0.2% flood levels!


Mark Whitney: GIS and the Web are starting to mature into very promising tools for our trade.

GIS for the National Flood Insurance Program beyond making digital flood map products, has involved some market penetration/marketing work, but also a large focus has on historical/repetitive loss analysis/issues. Most of this type of activity can be performed at the local level with a side benefit of credit for the Community Rating System (CRS).

GIS allows for the visualization of large databases, related to themes such as flood hazard areas, to explore mitigation strategies and solutions to flooding problems. This same type of analysis can form the foundation upon which local and state mitigation plans are created/modified.


Mark Whitney: I guess I should say a few things about Hurricane Fran. Too much work, too little time. These larger disasters can be so challenging for a GIS implementation. What kind of products do people need? Where to find quality data? How about skilled technicians to push the buttons? Hardware issues, contract issues.

Hundreds of products, thousands of copies. One of my favorites was using synthetic aperture radar (SAR) (RadarSat of Canada) to collect the flood extent four days following Fran's wet and rude landfall. EarthSat Corporation did a great job of processing the data and capturing vectors for more than 25,000 square miles.

This data was combined with Q3 FIRM data to select residences from the geo-coded phonebook data (more than a million records) who were in either the SFHA (100 year flood zone) or the SAR flood extent (FRANFLOOD).

These listings were then related to geo-coded FEMA Tele-registration Center data (disaster victims call the Center to register for disaster assistance). We could then go over problem areas with the FEMA Community Relations Teams (Outreach) to find areas where folks had a high likelihood of being affected by flooding, yet still had not called FEMA for help for one reason or another.


Mark Whitney: The Outreach teams could then, armed with maps, listings of names, addresses, and phone numbers ordered by street as you traveled down the floodplain, conduct outreach in a more effective and targeted manner. We also could provide the religious/social organizations in or near these flooded areas for the Outreach teams to contact. It was a great success.

Hurricane Fran, like most disasters, was a dynamic and highly charged environment. We coordinated data issues with Local governments and the State. Of all the issues that came up, the shortage of skilled and motivated GIS operators was the most significant.

Give Me Skilled, Experienced, and Motivated GIS Powered Technicians OR Give Me ??? (and give me some data standards). This is to my mind still the greatest challenge to implementation of spatial data technologies in a cost effective/efficient manner.

I list the data standards almost as an afterthought, while they are important, the people are the real difference. You can have the greatest hardware, software, cleanest most robust data -- without the people -- nada.

I can say that as a group, I have always enjoyed working with geo-nerds. They will usually bend over backwards to help you out to get what you need. We just need more of them and a career track to keep them. The same issue is at all levels of government/private sector as the technology matures.

The future of GIS for all will be much more Internet-centered. Much more information will be readily available to many more people. It is an exciting prospect and the expense for getting from here to there keeps falling.


I'll close with a URL to my favorite NASA image that you can look at when you have time, Hurricane Andrew as it made its way into Louisiana. <http://users.aol.com/hazardsnfp/andyred.jpg> Check out the shadow in the eye.

Thanks very much for your attention and I'll turn it back over to Amy.

Amy Sebring: Thank you, Mark. We would like to take a moment here to review how we will handle the Q&A so that we have an orderly session. We ask that you indicate that you have a question by typing just a question mark (?).

Then you can prepare your question, but PLEASE HOLD (don't hit end or send) your question until you are recognized. If we run out of time, you will have a chance to ask afterward in the follow up session in the Virtual Forum. Ok, first question from the floor? Ok, Cindy.

Audience Questions


Cindy Rice: Mark, you mentioned standards for GIS but currently FEMA and others are using several GIS's, MapInfo, Arcview, Nemis, FEMIS, GEMS, etc. How do you see that clearing up in the future of standardizing?

Mark Whitney: It's the data that counts. Use whatever application gets your specific job done best, have data that can be used by all. <PS> FEMA's desktop GIS standard is currently MapInfo.


Cindy Rice: Data as in the background?

Mark Whitney: Data is the food for any GIS. Database engine or data as in generic file formats? Data standards. If you have data standards that are public domain they can be translated into any file format or used with any database engine/GIS.

Amy Sebring: Mark, perhaps you can clarify some of the types of standards, one we have talked about is a commonly used symbology.

Mark Whitney: I hope that the FEMA IT folks, are in charge of FEMA GIS, will create some standards for other hazards and for EM operational types of data themes.


Cindy Rice: Does FEMA have a ""Red book"" for what they consider to be standard for GIS and database usage?

Mark Whitney: Only for flood data.


Amy Sebring: Mark, can you tell us a little something about yours or FEMA's involvement with the FGDC, Federal Geograhic Data Committee. Did I get that right?

Mark Whitney: FGDC, and Amy you got the correct name, is a group that deals with data standards in the broader Federal community. At this point they do not have a focus on hazards data. I sit on the Base Carto Subcommittee. We have put out a Spatial Data Transfer Standard, and the Metadata standard.


Amy Sebring: Do you think they will be addressing a range of standardization issues?

Mark Whitney: I do not know at this point. There are internal FEMA issues that I really can not get into in a public place. Sorry.


Neil Blais: The Red Book for flood data; does that address damage data, flood extent, other assistance (IA, PA), or FIP data?

Mark Whitney: No. Those are the types of standards that need to be developed and implemented.


Ann Willis: Do you have a plan for updating and maintaining the database, now that you have created it?

Mark Whitney: Which database?

Ann Willis: The flood information Database.

Mark Whitney: There are dozens of them. The flood hazard data is being updated slowly. There is now a Map Modernization Initiative that will update them faster in the future. It is an expensive process though. Like everything in DC, it is tied to the budget.


Amy Sebring: Have you seen GPS being used for the damage assessment process? This seems to be a very likely candidate application to me.

Mark Whitney: Yes. We started using it for that purpose in the '93 Midwest floods. And have used it many times since then. I should clarify that Mitigation has been the largest user of GPS. But a couple of years ago for the Kentucky floods, Infrastructure had me buy them 90 hand-held units to obtain xy coordinates for their Damage Survey Reports.


Avagene Moore: Mark, what do you see in the future for this field as far as professional development and career choice?

Mark Whitney: Related to Emergency Management, I think that the technology will start to be implemented more and more, mostly using the Internet. The GIS field, in general, has lots of jobs around the country and world but most of them are in Business Geographics, Natural Resources, Transportation, Engineering; EM is a bit behind the curve. My opinion of course, could be totally wrong. There are several good resources for GIS jobs on the Internet.


Amy Sebring: Mark, I find delivery of maps over the Internet rather clunky so far; any developments coming down the pike?

Mark Whitney: Yes. USGS and the military have developed some pretty cool compression technologies that allow for a viewer to see the data without downloading it first, uncompressing it, then viewing it. You can view large image files directly from whatever media you are using, CD's.

Again, the Internet has some interesting sites that are using this sort of technology online. Check out Microsoft's TerraServer! They and the USGS have put up images of much of the US and parts of the world. You can zoom into a high nice level of detail.

Final Question:

Avagene Moore: It concerns me that EM is usually behind the curve; strictly from your experience with GIS and other technologies, why is this so?

Mark Whitney: There are a million reasons. Perhaps all the attention that EM has received in recent years will improve the status quo. Not to mention activities such as the one we are participating in at the moment; exchanging information creates new ideas, etc.

Amy Sebring: I think we could probably devote an entire session to that question, Avagene!

I would like to thank Mark for all the preparation he did for today's session, terrific graphics. And we will include the links in the online version of the transcript so folks can go back and look at them in greater detail.

A word from Ms. Avagene about upcoming events.

Avagene Moore: Next week, we have Dolores Beaugez, Publisher of the Horse Review in the Round Table, Tuesday Oct 6, 1 PM EDT. Discussion on Animals and Disaster Planning.

Wednesday, Dr. Tom Schmidlin, Kent University, will present a paper on Florida's deadly tornadoes this past February. Oct 7, 12 Noon EDT.

Amy Sebring: We invite you all to meet us back over in the Virtual Forum Room for a few more minutes of open discussion with Mark.

Thanks everyone for being with us today.

After the close of the formal hour of discussion in the Tech Arena, the speaker and audience moved to the Virtual Forum for a few more questions and comments relative to Mr. Whitney's topic.


Cindy Rice: Where can we get a copy of the standards that were discussed?

Mark Whitney: For flood data? I would wait for awhile, December, January. They are being revised.


Amy Sebring: What kind of standards do Red Book contain, Mark/Cindy?

Mark Whitney: I should have mentioned the training that I do at EMI related to hazards data. E234 Digital Hazard Data covers the basics of GIS with a emphasis on the flood data spatial accuracy issues. It is taught 4 times a year and usually has a broad makeup of students from all levels of government.


Cindy Rice: Once a state has the Q3 data or other data, is it public domain, so we can pass down to our local emergency management people?

Amy Sebring: The flood plain managers at local level got it direct, Cindy, via CD.

Mark Whitney: Yes, I mailed out 7400 CD's last Christmas. So if a community was covered by a digital file they likely have it. Hopefully, it got to the correct person.

Amy Sebring:(see also transcript of March <http://www.emforum.org/vclass/980311.htm> re: session on Q3 data I did.


Cindy Rice: Amy, if they (supposing there is such an animal at the local got it, what would they do with it, or is my supposition that the local level doesn't have that capability, true or false?

Amy Sebring: Well, Cindy, I told somebody the CD should have been distributed with a viewer! Very few have capability.

Cindy Rice: Aaaaahhhhh!!!!

Mark Whitney: A viewer would not do much good. You would just see a bunch of lines.


Cindy Rice: So what would they need?

Amy Sebring: The transcript I referenced above was an attempt to do something with it.


Jose Musse: When is possible shopping RED BOOK?

Amy Sebring: Musse, he said it is being revised.

Mark Whitney: I don't know what a "Red Book" is.

Amy Sebring: He is referring to the flood GIS standards you were describing earlier.

Mark Whitney: It will also be posted via the Internet, the flood data standards.

Amy Sebring: Musse, I believe we do need some international standards in this area.

Jose Musse: Is true, in Peru we should like international system. I know that, problem is acceptance for organizations.

Cindy Rice: Red Book is a concept used by military and the Red Book dealt with standards, Orange something else, Blue something else, etc.

Amy Sebring: Well, we need a proper venue, and I happen to think it must be ISO.

Jose Musse: Is right, ISO.

Mark Whitney: There may be some international standards related to hazards through the US Vice President's Global Disaster Information Network.

Amy Sebring: There will be a paper on that issue from GDIN, you are correct on that, Mark. Let me see who is working on it.

Mark Whitney: Remind me at work and I'll give you and email and URL.

Amy Sebring: Ok, it's Dennis King at ReliefWeb. Well, I am going to run off and get some lunch. Thanks again for a well-prepared session, Mark!

Mark Whitney: Me too! Sure. Nice being invited.

Avagene Moore: Mark, thank you for the presentation. Thanks to our audience. Good show!