Hazard Data Distribution System Proves Valuable During 2017 Hurricane Season

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The calls for assistance started days before the first hurricane—the one they called Harvey—came barreling across America’s doorstep in the summer of 2017.

MODIS image of Hurricane Harvey

MODIS satellite image of Hurricane Harvey, caputred on Aug. 25, 2017. (Public domain.)

First responders and government officials needed answers with the warm Atlantic waters that were churning Harvey’s lethal winds and rain leaving little doubt about what was to come. How strong was this massive storm going to be? What kind of damage did it end up exacting on its path through the Caribbean? How might it impact the Gulf Coast landscape of southeast Texas once it made landfall?

Some of those answers, they knew, could be found within remotely-sensed images being acquired almost daily by members of the International Charter Space and Major Disasters (the Charter) consortium. The Charter provides no-cost data to a central online repository overseen by EROS that draws images from other remote-sensing systems as well, and is called the Hazard Data Distribution System (HDDS). Days before Harvey made landfall at Rockport, Texas, on August 26, 2017, requests for those scenes began—and they didn’t stop, not as a rogues’ gallery of monster storms named Irma, Maria, and more followed Harvey one after the other.

“It’s been unusual,” said Brenda Jones, the disaster response coordinator for EROS, which along with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) is a member of the Charter. “We haven’t had one (a hurricane season) like this for a very long time,”

Forty-eight government agencies—from the U.S. Senate to the Foreign Agricultural Service, the Department of Homeland Security to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—have downloaded more than 15,000 images from HDDS because of Harvey, Irma, and Maria from HDDS. That’s kept TSSC staff at EROS busy days, nights, and weekends to keep HDDS populated with no-cost satellite and aerial images.

Once the hurricane season blossomed, TSSC employees Brenda Ellis, Brent Johnson, Kathy Goodale, and Ron Hayes at the EROS Center began spending 90 percent of their workdays pulling data acquired by systems like Spot, ASTER, Digital Globe, the Civil Air Patrol, even Landsat, and loading them into HDDS. If the system developed a glitch, Greg Land was ready to step in to resolve it. Problems from a software standpoint? Pat Park lent a hand to address any formatting issues so the data could be loaded and ready to go.

“We’ve been incredibly busy, not just on the hurricanes, but on the earthquake in Mexico, and during this busy fire season, too,” said Brent Nelson, the Operations Work Manager for the Data Management and Information Delivery (DMID) project at EROS. “Data can come in late in the day, towards the evening, so the staff will go out at night and check for data. I know a couple of times they’ve been online past midnight, downloading data, trying to get it ready.”

Why? Because quick, easy, centralized access to those images makes it possible to turn them into maps useful to disaster management authorities. They prove invaluable in aiding rescue efforts as well. At a time when the USGS is marshalling disaster assistance on multiple hurricane fronts—deploying storm-tide sensors along coastal waters, or providing expertise and support through experts in storm tides, coastal erosion, and inland flooding—HDDS is an equally important asset.

In Houston, where Harvey dropped as much as 52 inches of rain, the Department of Veterans Affairs relied on remotely sensed data to see where VA hospitals and clinics were inundated, where roads were passable to bring in critical supplies, and to assess damage, Jones said.

A variety of the data—whether Synthetic Aperture Radar from Germany, remotely-send images from South Korea and Japan, or aerial photos from the U.S. Civil Air Patrol—helped Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to identify roads and other infrastructure that were under water in an effort to better direct rescue efforts. They have assisted the Department of Health and Human Services in mobilizing help to nursing homes dealing with flooding. They have been important to the National Guard, Coast Guard, Air Force, Army, and other military organizations as they have been asked to assist both with helping stranded civilians and in providing security to storm-damaged communities.

 “When Hurricane Irma was coming, we helped with all the pre-assessment of Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, so the first responders out in the field, or agencies like FEMA, had the data they needed,” Nelson said. “That way, when the post-assessments started coming in, they can compare pre to post.”

With access to HDDS, first responders to disasters like the recent earthquake near Mexico City could see buildings that were down, roads that were blocked, and infrastructure that was damaged, Nelson said. Same thing this fire season—HDDS makes it possible for first responders to get a wide-scale picture of damaged buildings and infrastructure.

But especially during this long hurricane season, as she coordinated requests for assistance, made sure people were tasking the correct satellite systems, and worked with agencies that had data they wanted to share, Jones could easily sense the incredible impact the Charter and HDDS were having.

“With all the work we’ve done during emergency operations,” she said, “we are quickly recognized, even globally, as a resource for remote-sensing data for disasters.”

Beyond all that, it’s plausible as well to believe that the Charter and HDDS are actually saving lives in this long storm season. Though anecdotal testimony doesn’t typically make its way back to EROS, or to the desks of Charter members, Jones said she wouldn’t be surprised at all if that was true, especially in the case of Hurricane Harvey.

“Because of the way that storm was with its extended rain, and because it took so long to get search and rescue done with Harvey, I wouldn’t be surprised at all that the imagery we provided was a very valuable asset,” she said.