The story of GIS at DHS: From Manhattan to Katrina

May 8, 2019 1 Comments

Part 1

In a rare historic moment, Congress understood geospatial technology’s important role would be key to support the new Department of Homeland Security.

Written by Nate Smith; edited and co-written by William Tewelow, GISP

If it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger, but therein is the rub: You first have to avoid dying. Nothing sharpens the mind like trying to survive.

On Tuesday morning, Sept. 11, 2001, the United States suffered a near mortal wound. In order to recover, there was no margin for error. Surviving depended upon getting it right. Failing to “connect the dots” again could prove fatal.

The cause, in large part, were organizational silos in the intelligence and security agencies and no structure upon which intelligence data could be shared across the silos. With terminal lucidity at failure’s dire consequences, in a rare historic moment, Congress, seldom praised for innovative thinking, understood geospatial technology’s important role and would be key for supporting the agency’s mission.

Click for an overview presentation on the GMO. (Image: DHS)

Click for an overview presentation on the GMO. (Image: DHS)

The government had to be restructured and given new tools and technologies to ensure our safety. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was the centerpiece of this effort bringing a number of established security focused organizations under its umbrella.

The creation of DHS was an unprecedented task in the modern era. Many of Congress’ recommendations were codified in the founding of the Geospatial Management Office (GMO) established within DHS.

Connecting the Geospatial Dots. The GMO’s mission was to create community, infrastructure, and the sharing of data and ideas ensuring future dots get connected to anticipate trends and stay ahead of adversaries avoiding another shock to our nation.

The early GMO was modestly funded and staffed with employees on short-term assignments from other agencies in borrowed office space at Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) headquarters.

The first geographic information officer, Ryan Cast, developed the work plan, putting emphasis on discovering what data and opportunities already existed and identifying activities that supported and enhanced the component agencies. Integrating the agencies capabilities and optimizing their interoperability was the focus of his leadership laying a strong foundation for future GIO’s to build upon.

Weathering Hurricane Katrina

The GMO was still finding its sea legs when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2004. Since expectations were low, they did not bear the brunt of the critics. The GMO, seeing the negative attention directed towards FEMA, created innovative partnerships with National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA, which was NIMA at the time) and the United States Geographic Survey (USGS) employing their prototype technology to assist the recovery and response community, who were looking for innovations to ensure wide access to data and tools.

<b>Before and after Hurricane Katrina:</b> Photos taken off the coast of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, show how the storm surge, estimated to have exceeded 20 feet in Waveland, destroyed homes and left only foundations. Trees have been denuded of all vegetation. (Photo: USGS)

Before and after Hurricane Katrina: Photos taken off the coast of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, show how the storm surge, estimated to have exceeded 20 feet in Waveland, destroyed homes and left only foundations. Trees have been denuded of all vegetation. (Photo: USGS)

<b>Before and after Hurricane Katrina:</b>In the top image, taken in 1998, notice the Deep South Motel to the left and the apartment building to the right. The bottom image shows the same location on Aug. 31, 2005, two days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall. A small portion of the motel is only structure left standing. (Photo: USGS)

Before and after Hurricane Katrina:In the top image, taken in 1998, notice the Deep South Motel to the left and the apartment building to the right. The bottom image shows the same location on Aug. 31, 2005, two days after Hurricane Katrina made landfall. A small portion of the motel is only structure left standing. (Photo: USGS)

A key partnership was established between FEMA and Louisiana State University to develop a geospatial data clearinghouse, which proved to be useful to many agencies and researchers.

iCAV. One technical innovation in response to Katrina was the DHS Infrastructure Critical Asset Viewer (iCAV) interactive mapping platform branded as GIS for the Gulf.

iCAV was built on technology borrowed from NGA’s Palanterra Common Operational Picture (COP) system, repurposed for the DHS mission, providing map-based situational awareness.

From this operational experience, additional design elements were identified for improvement, including symbology on the front end and data modeling on the back end. These became central aspects of development for the GMO.

USNG. Katrina also highlighted the need for a more universally accepted referencing framework to assist field operations, planting the seeds for the development of a U.S. National Grid system (USNG).

I personally experienced the need for a USNG, having lived on the Mississippi Coast at the time. GIS in the government, especially the use of it domestically at the federal level was almost non-existent, and with all the landmarks and road signs gone, the entire coastal area was uncharted territory.

More than once I helped a lost Red Cross supply truck return to the main road.

Hurricane Harvey Hits Hard

Fast forward to Aug. 25, 2017, when there was a brief, collective sigh of relief as the full destructive force of Hurricane Harvey’s eye wall missed the highly populated areas of the Texas coast. The pause was brief. Coming into focus through rainfall observations and numerical weather models meteorologists and emergency managers understood another peril was imminent.

Harvey had lost its steering winds and would linger in the Houston area dumping over 50 inches of rain in the coming days. In Houston, there was alarm as this deluge would likely far exceed the engineered capacities of the channels and reservoirs and an epic flood was in the making. This anxiety was shared with the regional FEMA office and in the Washington, D.C. headquarters.

FEMA’s geospatial experts in D.C., having recently demonstrated their successful impact analysis approach in Louisiana, felt assured they could quickly grasp the magnitude of this event with high confidence, but were concerned about another type of flood — the flood of data and tools, as well as inquiries distracting them from their primary focus.

Partnerships, capabilities and expertise. Events such as these attract well intentioned and ambitious researchers and vendors seeking the time and attention of response leaders to share their resources and gain access to FEMA’s data. Even short conversations consume critical time.

These secondary groups often contribute valuable resources and services playing key roles in community learning and development so their outreach efforts need to be balanced.

Rather than ignoring these efforts, FEMA contacted the GMO to leverage their partnerships, capabilities and expertise to facilitate these exchanges. In one day, the GMO developed a publicly accessible portal and assigned a team of geospatial experts the responsibility to catalog and make discoverable all geospatial data related to Hurricane Harvey.

Over the following two weeks, this response became a model of transparency, innovation and collaboration, and the site is still available supporting research and providing an example for future events. The site was a great example of government getting it right, but it came at a price, and still there are two long shadows cast by towers no longer there.

Conclusion

From Greater Manhattan to Katrina’s desolation and the floods of Harvey, significant advances were on the horizon and expectations were on the rise for the GMO. In Part 2, we will explore this growth and see how these lessons and the efforts of many led to the current state of geospatial preparedness and capability in the DHS’ geospatial shop.

Read Geospatial Solutions’ interview of Christopher Vaughan, FEMA Geospatial Information Officer, and his account of Hurricane Harvey.

Further Reading

How GIS — and you — can aid in disaster response


Homeland Security Working Group

Hurricane Response Mapping

LSU GIS Information Clearinghouse

FEMA Enterprise GIS Services

Conference Report on S. 2845, Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004.

Geospatial Management Office, established by Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 Title VII, Subtitle B, Section 8201, Homeland Security Geospatial Information – Implemented through DHS Management Directive 4030, 11/12/2004.

Homeland Infrastructure Foundation-Level Data (HIFLD) Hurricane Harvey Response.

September 11, 2001. Never forget.


Geographic Information Officers of GMO
  • Ryan Cast (2003-2005)
  • Dan Cotter (2005-2007)
  • Jeff Booth (2007-2012)
  • David Alexander (2012-2015)
  • David Lilley (2015-2016)
  • Michael Donnelly (2016-Present)

Guest author Nate Smith is an independent consultant who has worked for over 25 years advancing the adoption of geospatial technology to disaster management, humanitarian response and natural disaster risk reduction.

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