MSU technology helped save lives on hurricane-battered coast


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Posted: 9/21/2005


Mississippi State scientists used their aerial imagery and mapping skills to help rescue hundreds of stranded survivors of Hurricane Katrina and are continuing to provide valuable assistance in the ongoing disaster recovery effort.

Thirteen faculty, researchers and graduate students from the university's GeoResources Institute and Forest and Wildlife Research Center applied their expertise in geographic information and global positioning systems to help U.S. Coast Guard helicopter pilots find and pluck nearly 300 storm victims from danger at scattered locations along the devastated Mississippi Gulf Coast.

"There was an immediate need for geocoding--taking street addresses and turning them into map coordinates," said GRI director David Shaw. "Basically, there were no streets left, so the Coast Guard used GPS units to guide their choppers to people trapped in the floodwaters."

Even before Katrina, the campus-based institute was a "world leader in spatial technologies and resource management," observed MSU research vice president Colin Scanes.

Rich Minnis, a MSU project team leader and spatial technologies expert at MSU's Forest and Wildlife Research Center, said at least "289 folks up and down the Mississippi Coast" were rescued as a direct result of the geocoding effort. In the days after the hurricane hit Aug. 29, the MSU volunteers worked 12-hour shifts around the clock at the Emergency Operations Center in Jackson, he added.

Minnis said GIS experts from the Park Ridge, Ill.-based Urban and Regional Information Systems Association's GISCorps, Mississippi Automated Resource Information System, and sister institutions University of Mississippi and Delta State University also participated in the MSU-led mapping effort.

"This was all done in real time where life and death were measured in minutes," said another member of the MSU team, GRI research associate Louis Wasson. "One call came in that a man was hemorrhaging at a specific street address. The address was geocoded, the man was picked up and taken to a hospital, and his life was saved.

"Another call came in from a 74-year-old woman who had walked to a power station on the coast," added Wasson. "The power station had been mapped and the chopper pilot, using that map, navigated to the station to pick up the woman."

The MSU team's Jackson operations continue to be housed in a mobile education unit owned by the State Institutions of Higher Learning and located at the EOC's headquarters on Riverside Drive. The bus-like unit's 10-15 computer work stations gather remote sensing imagery from sophisticated aerial and satellite systems and turn that into advanced maps.

"Maps are worth more than gold on the coast," said Wasson. "You need a picture of what's going on and maps provide that visual perspective at a moment in time. The military needs detailed street maps for their missions, the media need maps, and maps have been stapled to poles to inform people where to go for aid and relief."

The MSU team produced 186 maps on their first day of operation immediately after the Aug. 29 storm came ashore. That number was upped to a total to 300 by the following day.

As soon as travel to the coast was possible, team members moved to EOC field sites in Jackson, Harrison and Hancock counties, as well as the neighboring counties immediately to the north, to provide front-line help.

Working on self-contained laptop computers hooked to large-format printers, Minnis said the field teams now "easily are turning out 1,000 maps a day."

"We are helping with disaster response and disaster relief planning by providing detailed road maps, locating power lines that have been downed by limbs, assessing damage to houses, etc.," added a sleepy Minnis during a rest from a 22-hour shift.

The assistant research professor of wildlife and fisheries said maps are being utilized by a wide variety of disaster response entities that include the Coast Guard and fire and rescue departments from as far away as New York and California, as well as the U.S. Marines, Navy Seabees and Army National Guard.

"We will be compiling map books for the three coastal counties for use in assessing housing damage," said Wade Givens, another team leader and GRI research associate. "Where available, these books will include imagery of streets, building footprints and parcels of land labeled with owner names.

"We have shown damage assessment teams that by using the imagery and parcel data, they can determine which houses are concrete slabs," Givens added. "That can save a lot of man-hours in the field."

Other members of the MSU team include GRI research associates Rita Jackson, Joby Prince, Ryan Wersal and Josh Cheshier; geosciences department graduate students John Gilreath, Chitra Prabhu and Ravi Sadasivuni; wildlife and fisheries professor Wes Burger; wildlife and fisheries postdoctoral associate Mark Smith; and Charlie Hill, an undergraduate student in the department of electrical and computer engineering.

"This was a fantastic cooperative effort from across the university," said Shaw. "Faculty, staff and students from wildlife and fisheries, plant and soil sciences, geosciences, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Agriculture Research Service all provided support."

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