October 4, 2005

Cornell Creates Web Site To Help Hurricane Relief

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A website being developed at Cornell has the potential to aid in recovery and reconstruction efforts along the Gulf Coast.

Researchers collecting information about the disaster, such as damage done to infrastructure and communities, as well as demographic and economic data, are now able to overlay that quantitative record – called a Geographic Information System (GIS) – onto a map of the Gulf Coast.

“Our goal is to collect the information that is closest to the time of disaster. We then can provide a spatial connection to what went on along the Gulf Coast. Not everyone can visit the [physical] site. This is the place for virtual structures,” said Arthur Lembo, senior lecturer and research associate of the department of crop and soil sciences, the principle figure behind the website.

Lembo demonstrated the website’s capability as he zoomed into detailed imagery of the Biloxi, Miss. area and clicked on a point of focus, a ruined office building, which in turn brought up specific data about the building’s condition.

“We are providing a record database of Katrina, so researchers can ask questions of engineering design or social justice. [But] we can do these [web]sites in hours of an event. We have the technology; the bottleneck is the process flow,” he said.

Lembo said his goal was to create a model of rapid data assembly that would be useful to first responders relaying to a command and control center.

“If first responder agencies were to use this technology, the people on the ground, maybe with a wireless device, might have immediate access to vital information during the disaster, such as the location and condition of shelters,” he said.

Collecting the data on the ground since Sept. 6 are a group of researchers from the Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (MCEER).

Thomas O’Rourke, the Thomas R. Briggs Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is the leader of Cornell’s MCEER body.

“Cornell has shown that you are able to combine the GIS and imagery rapidly, and that the [web]sites will be used by lots of people,” O’Rourke said.

He was referring to the fear that the website would not be used much, but with the Tsunami GIS experiencing hundreds of thousands of hits, that fear has been put to rest.

The Tsunami GIS is a similar website constructed – albeit politics and distance made the process more difficult – by Lembo and O’Rourke for the area of Sri Lanka that was hit by the tsunami last year.

O’Rourke outlined the three principle uses for the information of the Katrina GIS: improving predictions for future planning, recovery, and emergency response.

But he said not everything has been accomplished.

“In the last three years, the previous technology barriers have been overcome. We now have a web-based GIS that can be assembled rapidly. [But] the institutional barriers have not been overcome,” he said.

O’Rourke acknowledged that when the team enters New Orleans the difficulties will be much greater than elsewhere, as unstable social and political dynamics continue to shape the recovery efforts of the city. He was optimistic that this would only result in greater time demands.

Atif Riaz ’09, a resident of New Orleans and Tulane evacuee, would like to see the project succeed.

“It will be difficult, because you need everybody on your side for this to be implemented. But I think this could be a really good approach to handling disasters,” he said.

Archived article by Jack Stetter
Sun Contributor