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NASA Disasters Program aids with disaster relief efforts

Satellite imagery and mapping have proven to be critical technologies when it comes to disaster relief efforts.

The NASA Earth Science Disasters Program has harnessed these technologies to help communities and governments recover from natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes and more.

“[The goal of the program is to] try to prevent natural disasters or limit their impact and also help people recover from them more quickly,” Jeremy Kirkendall, senior GIS administrator for the NASA Disasters Program, told GPS World in an exclusive interview at the 2019 Esri User Conference in San Diego. “We provide the products free to anyone to use, and data is only available if there is a good satellite pass.”

When a natural disaster strikes, researchers at the NASA Disasters Program will take satellite imagery of the affected location and create a map to show what the area looks like from an aerial perspective. Authorities who request this information can then compare the disaster map with maps of what the area looked like before the disaster took place.

“We do take requests from agencies or governments for disasters if they need help if data is available,” Kirkendall said. “We’ll create the products that show where the earthquake damage happened, where the fire burned or where the flooding is, and then users take that — combined with their local information — to determine what needs to be checked.”

For example, the NASA Disasters Program was able to map out the magnitude 6.4 July 4 Southern California earthquake.

“The earthquake that happened on July 4 caused a lot of deformation to the ground, so we mapped out that surface deformation and shared that information with other emergency managers, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Guard and U.S. Navy,” Kirkendall said. “You can look at things like roads, utilities, underground pipes for natural gas or geothermal wells, or fiberoptic cables. Then when you provide the product to these end users, they can overlay it with utility and infrastructure information to identify what’s the most at risk and what needs to be investigated.”

Sometimes, when a natural disaster occurs over a longer period of time, data is mapped throughout the duration of the occurrence, as well. This can help with search-and-rescue missions, infrastructure repairs and post-disaster analysis.

“We will create products during responses that can last a long time, like for Hurricane Florence or the flooding that recently happened in the Midwest,” Kirkendall said. “We’ll keep turning out flood products day after day when there’s good satellite passes that show that information.”

Kirkendall added that the National Guard has used the live data, along with 911 calls, to find individuals trapped in flooded houses. The data also serves as a tool for post-disaster analysis to understand where damage occurred, ways to fix it and how to prevent it from happening again.

“The program itself is gearing toward a resiliency effort, where we can provide these products when communities says, ‘We get flooded here all the time, over and over,’” Kirkendall said. “That’s where we need to be prepared to fix something. We need to do something to prevent that.”

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