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October 15th, 2013
What details become apparent when disasters hit close to home?

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The devastating Colorado floods are just recently behind us, and a frenzy of proactive rebuilding goes on despite a national government shutdown. It’s heartening to see resources rallied firsthand. The proximity to our operations, coupled with connections to climate and the destruction to infrastructure, make this a seemingly perfect case study for much of our coverage.

Themes of adaptation and resilience hold new meaning when your state is hit by a 500-year or 1,000-year rainfall and flood that encompassed a 1,500 square-mile region. The toll on infrastructure alone is hard to fathom, with some 200 miles of state highways and 50 bridges lost. These floods come after another damaging fire season, which makes Colorado a candidate for the Australia of the Northern hemisphere in terms of climate change canary. While there is much good to be seen, these events also point to areas in need of improvement.

Silo Spotlight

As so many disasters have highlighted, many state agencies regardless of the state, operate autonomously with very little collaboration with each other. While they may have data sharing agreements that kick in for disasters, there are very little coordinated public communications. With disasters of this scale there’s a firm guiding hand from FEMA of course, but that doesn’t seem to improve general awareness and understanding.

In this day, we expect and assume better Internet communications. One could turn to the state for details on road closures only to find cryptic information and outdated maps, while Google Maps traffic data painted a much better picture of what was actually occurring on state roadways. This begs the question of even having a “current” map on the state site if they can’t be given the attention that make them at all useful for presenting current conditions. An explicit polygon around the most affected areas would suffice to inform visitors to stay away and take the onus off the updates, but something clearly should be done.

Expecting the Unexpected

Speaking to one GIS manager for a local city was enlightening in terms of the Murphy’s Law of disasters. His city faced a late night scare when it was thought that a dam might burst. Of course, that was the night that the GIS backups were running, and it took a great deal of effort to get back online to perform the necessary analysis. In the end, those that were in the gravest danger were warned, and the evening passed without a breach.

This is merely a cautionary reminder to have a backup plan, and perhaps pre-run scenarios to have some plan of action. I’m certain a lot of municipal managers in Colorado are hard at work to quantify the damage as well as to learn positive lessons for how to better be prepared in the future. A great deal of power resides in the GIS toolset for understanding exactly what occurred, as well as ways to model how the response could be improved.

More Collection for Modeling

The floods also saw an interesting and potentially game-changing use of UAV technology. Falcon UAV flew areas of high water in Longmont, Colo., providing a service that would have been impossible by satellite because of cloud cover, and very difficult for manned aircraft due to emergency air rescue activity. Very quickly, Falcon UAV’s fixed-wing craft collected helpful details of the flood impact and extent, as well as a reliable high-resolution record of the quickly-changing conditions on ground.
Unfortunately, the company was shut down by FEMA before they were able to capture some of the more dramatic damage up the road in Lyons, Colo. While it’s understandable that there should be tight control of airspace in a disaster zone, it’s hard not to also feel that an opportunity was missed where the technology could have filled an important gap in disaster management and damage assessment. The ability to quickly capture reality and compare it to pre-existing conditions is making a leap forward in capacity and quickness, as in the coming UAV proliferation, and hopefully it will be just a matter of short years before they’re embraced widely for such situations.

All inputs as to the conditions and how streams and waterways infiltrated areas will be helpful for planning better infrastructure in the future. An engineer would make good use of aerial video showing how bridges were washed away. With a huge outlay of funds to fix things, the opportunity to do things better is top of mind, especially due to more variable weather patterns that could mean that the next 500-year flood is just years away.

Living near mountains provides an important visible reminder of geological time. It’s always grounding to think how our planet has changed so dramatically over time, and be reminded of the scale and scope of geological changes that made the mountains in the first place. It’s another thing to witness firsthand a dramatic landscape transformation. Here’s hoping that we improve our awareness, and over-engineer in order to improve resilience as we get ready for the next calamity.


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