Improving Hurricane Response and Recovery with GIS
Leon County is no stranger to storms. The 702-square-mile Florida area, known for its rich history and major universities, is a hot spot for tropical storms and hurricanes. When a storm is on the way, geographic information system (GIS) technology is an invaluable tool for the county's emergency management personnel in alerting citizens; coordinating firefighting and ambulance personnel; maintaining public services such as water, power, and communications; and deploying rescue, evacuation, and shelter plans. The consequences of failure in any of these objectives may include infrastructure damaged, homes destroyed, and lives lost.
Leon County, Florida
Build an emergency management system to help Leon County prepare for and recover after hurricanes.
Collector for ArcGIS, Esri emergency management solution, Survey123 for ArcGIS, Esri Enterprise Agreement
With offline, real-time functionality, county responds to hurricanes more quickly and assists nearby areas.
In September 2016, Leon County's 25-year stretch without a major tropical storm ended when category 1 Hurricane Hermine made landfall in Florida. Eighty percent of the city lost power for over a week and many homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed, at a cost of approximately $10.3 million. A year later, the area was hit again when category 4 Hurricane Irma arrived. Irma toppled power lines, blocked roads, and damaged properties across the county.
Throughout both events, Leon County continued to learn valuable lessons. After each hurricane, staff reviewed successes as well as areas in need of improvement, intensifying efforts to improve the county's preparedness and enhance internal processes to best handle the next event.
Staff discovered, among other things, a critical need for applications to support outage maps during periods of high-volume, offline functionality for damage assessment. Staff also recognized the need for ready-to-use emergency management operations solutions that they could implement effectively and immediately during an activation.
The next event would arrive only a year later, when category 5 Hurricane Michael arrived just to the west of Leon County. "We were early adopters of ArcGIS Online, and I think that's helped paved the way," said Scott Weisman, GIS program coordinator at Tallahassee-Leon County GIS. "It made it a lot easier to stand up the applications needed to support [response to] the kinds of natural disasters that we've experienced."
A major area of focus for Leon County was the critical issue of damage assessment. Officials knew that swift and accurate assessment of damages is crucial after a disaster, as this would determine what the amount of relief funds would be and when they would arrive to help the community get back on its feet.
Having implemented an Esri Enterprise Agreement in 2009, Tallahassee-Leon County GIS began using Collector for ArcGIS in 2016 to manage damage assessment efforts. Since the county already had a high-quality point addressing layer, staff could extract their own address points and attach a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) damage assessment schema. When county damage assessors visited the mapped properties, they were able to use Collector to take a picture of each property and designate each structure's damage level. By the time Hurricane Michael made landfall, the county was able to use the app effectively even in an offline environment. In areas of no service, data was saved in the app until a connection became available, at which point the app synced the data automatically. Staff back at the office were able to monitor damage assessment dashboards as information was loaded into the system. Administrators and directors could use the most up-to-date information to aid in decision-making during disaster response.
Leon County staff knew they needed a comprehensive solution to tie together their multifaceted emergency management approach, so the county expanded on its use of ArcGIS to include a configured solution for emergency management operations. The rich application and template offerings gave the county access to the full range of software and services that staff needed to fully prepare for the next major event.
Leon County also uses the WebEOC platform provided by Juvare, an Esri partner. This incident tracking system uses an ArcGIS extension to work with Esri applications—the information-rich boards in WebEOC are connected to damage assessors in Collector for ArcGIS, using ArcGIS Online. The county uses WebEOC together with Esri products to create an effective emergency management model, customized for the county's needs.
"After Hurricane Michael, we finished our initial damage assessment within three days of the roads clearing, and got our individual assessment declaration from FEMA seven days after the storm," said Ned Cake, GIS integration manager at Tallahassee-Leon County GIS. "It's a significant time savings, which allowed us to get relief funds to the community faster."
Another topic of concern for the county was keeping residents informed of power outage developments. During Hermine, the City of Tallahassee had created a service interruption mapping application for the public to access online to view up-to-date outage information. At the time, the mapping application required three staffers to actively monitor around the clock in order to manage it. That mapping application was so effective that it was featured on a prominent weather-focused website; however, the site's servers crashed from the millions of hits that it subsequently received. By the time Hurricane Michael was on its way in 2018, Tallahassee-Leon County GIS had signed a contract with Esri for managed web services, which also included the City of Tallahassee public utility outage map. This ensured for the county that the map would remain functional and available for users during a disaster, even with a significant increase of users.
Over the course of a few years, Leon County transitioned from an emergency management process involving whiteboards and paper in triplicate to a comprehensive, resilient GIS-based disaster response system. The new system allows for quick, adaptable response to disaster conditions such as power outages; for example, a call reporting a downed power line would now be funneled to the GIS desk in the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and into the WebEOC incident tracking system at the same time. Call takers now can use ArcGIS Online to geocode the address while the call is still in progress, drop a point on the location, and symbolize the type of damage. Next, the various partnering agencies would access the information and assign the repair task to the nearest available responder. From this point, aggregation of collected information (the number of downed lines in a given area, for instance) becomes simple and can provide valuable insights during recovery.
Leon County's current emergency management system also enables swift damage assessment after an event. The speed and completeness with which this assessment is submitted to FEMA are a major factor in determining what amount of relief funds the afflicted community will receive and how soon they will arrive. Until these funds are available, citizens are unable to begin to rebuild and restore their homes and businesses. After Hurricane Michael, the county was able to complete damage assessment in only three days, a nearly unheard-of accomplishment. This provided FEMA staff with the data they needed to proceed with relief efforts as quickly as possible.
Since utilizing the emergency management operations-based solutions and initiating its enterprise agreement, Leon County has also begun providing GIS disaster support to smaller surrounding counties, many of which have 6,000 residents or fewer and don't have the budget to maintain the same level of emergency management preparedness. Leon County will soon be deploying Survey123 for ArcGIS for damage assessment within those nearby counties; in the event of a disaster, those counties will have the ability to begin assessments on their own as soon as possible. Assessment data provided by these rural counties will funnel directly into Leon County's WebEOC and central dashboards, and the data will be available for those counties' use without Leon County staff devoting additional time.
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