Now, Esri has comprehensive solutions that can be configured to meet our customer needs. I think we're in a better position today to handle an incident with the Damage Assessment solution than we were a year ago.
Alaska Community Uses Damage Assessment Solution to Aid Recovery
Matanuska-Susitna Borough is in a mountainous area in southcentral Alaska that is home to agriculture, transportation corridors, tourism industries, and outdoor recreation. The county-style government serves about 107,000 residents in approximately 25,000 square miles—roughly the size of West Virginia. Known as Mat-Su, it is one of the fastest-growing areas in Alaska.
However, many areas of the borough are remote and lack the infrastructure needed to be connected to more populated areas, like the cities of Wasilla and Palmer. Mat-Su's geographic information system (GIS) team understood the need to ensure that the borough was equipped to provide services for residents in times of emergency, especially residents living in sparsely populated areas. By implementing GIS technology organization-wide, departments like Emergency Services have been able to work cross-functionally to streamline data collection and management, and can respond appropriately.
As a government agency, Mat-Su Borough is excited about how mapping tools have been spread across the organization and implemented for faster processes. Leah Jones, GIS programmer/analyst at Mat-Su Borough, said, "We've already got assessors, code officers, and permit inspectors that are using Esri tools daily. When they get pulled into an emergency to help, it's intuitive for them—they're not having to get training or trying to figure out how to log in. They can hit the road running and help, and we can collectively work as a team."
Ready When Disaster Strikes
Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Alaska
Disparate systems led to inaccurate damage reports and made managing damage information during an emergency cumbersome and time-consuming.
Esri's Damage Assessment solution has provided a uniform way to collect, assess, and manage data during an emergency event.
Now, Mat-Su can receive damage information through public reports as well as manage and share data quickly with state and federal agencies, ultimately increasing efficiency and expediting the deployment of recovery resources.
The GIS team and emergency management staff have always had a good working relationship, but they did not use geographic information systems that worked together in a seamless, efficient way.
In 2015, a large fire hit the Willow area of Mat-Su Borough, and in 2018, there was an earthquake. During both events, the Department of Emergency Services used its own geocoding system to collect data and assess damages. The GIS team then reviewed this data and analyzed the locations of damage reports. Due to the disparate systems being used, the team was often unsure if the damage reports were accurate.
"We would end up having to go back through every single response and look at assessment photos, our parcel base, and where the point was at," Jones explained, "and tried to put the puzzle pieces together, [wondering], 'Was this damage really at this location, or was it supposed to be two houses down or three miles away?'"
In January 2022, a windstorm downed trees and caused power outages and major damage to homes and buildings. The hurricane-force wind gusts were up to 91 miles per hour over the course of several days, and some residents did not have power restored for more than a week—all while temperatures were around zero degrees. Many areas of the borough sustained significant damage.
As a result, the team discovered it needed a more uniform way to collect, assess, and manage data after a critical incident and be better prepared for the next emergency event. The GIS team rapidly deployed Esri's Damage Assessment solution. This solution is used to conduct initial damage assessments after a natural disaster or other type of catastrophic incident. The solution supports rapid data collection, management, and reporting of damage to expedite the deployment of appropriate recovery resources.
The GIS team began its solution implementation by determining who needed what type of reporting information, such as individuals, business owners, or local government officials seeking qualified reimbursement.
"It was important for our emergency manager to have commercial [claims] separated. We view commercial [claims] as individual assistance, but the State of Alaska and the federal government don’t. We had to [document] enough damage in either category to justify declaring a disaster [and opening up emergency funds]," said Kenny Kleewein, GIS manager for Mat-Su Borough.
Once local, state, and federal emergency disaster declarations were made, disaster response and recovery funding were made available so that the borough could apply for aid from the state and federal government to support ongoing recovery efforts. "You have to go through those steps," said Kleewein, "and we had to prove how much damage we had in order to try to justify the next step."
The Damage Assessment solution is aligned with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) programs to ensure that the information collected meets FEMA's requirements. This alignment proved essential to helping quantify the windstorm damage and efficiently move through the disaster declarations required for appropriate aid.
Building Public Information and Intergovernmental Support
To help residents and business owners easily understand how to apply for state and federal government recovery funding, the GIS team utilized ArcGIS Hub, which was provided with the Damage Assessment solution, to create a hub site. Mat-Su branded the site as the MSB Disaster Damage Reporter and launched a campaign that encouraged public reporting and provided residents with valuable recovery resources.
The team also utilized the public damage report included in the solution to collect residents' photos of property damage. Given the sprawling size of Mat-Su and its many remote areas, the public reports allowed for the borough to receive critical damage information from residents sooner than staff could have been sent out to do assessments. Ultimately, 1,718 damage requests for public assistance were reported, of which 1,681 were for debris removal. These reports were managed using the Damage Assessment solution and generated approximately $1.4 million in recovery costs. As a result of the GIS technology deployed by the borough, staff were prepared to share data quickly with state and federal government agencies, which led to greater efficiencies in processing resident and business applications for aid.
FEMA recently went to Mat-Su to assess the damage from the windstorm. Kleewein remarked, “We were able to run some reports for [FEMA staff] based on the debris piles and who was affected. They were impressed with how fast we had the information."
Kleewein added, "It's very important that we've captured all this data upfront with the public's assistance as well as our due diligence, so then we can [possibly] get that return back from the [state and] federal governments."
The Damage Assessment solution allowed the GIS team to collect data that helped the borough apply for critical state, federal, and local aid. It also helped Mat-Su quickly recover from the emergency and become more resilient for the future. Looking ahead, the GIS team will continue to refine and use the Damage Assessment solution in other weather-related events and natural disasters.
"We're super excited to have the Damage Assessment solution in place, and it's more user-friendly for us as mapping professionals," said Jones.
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