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Center for Space Research uses satellite mapping to aid efforts to rescue Hurricane Katrina victims

Vice President Dick Cheney last Saturday (Sept. 10) acknowledged the work of a research group from The University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Space Research (CSR) who used sophisticated satellite mapping technology to assist water rescue efforts for thousands of Katrina victims.

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AUSTIN, Texas—Vice President Dick Cheney last Saturday (Sept. 10) acknowledged the work of a research group from The University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Space Research (CSR) who used sophisticated satellite mapping technology to assist water rescue efforts for thousands of Katrina victims.

Working within the State Operations Center of the Governor’s Division of Emergency Management, an eight-person research group from the Center for Space Research used satellite and global positioning system (GPS) technology to coordinate rescue efforts for New Orleans survivors. The team also manages the state’s mass care shelter database and continues to help evacuees by tracking the availability of hundreds of shelters across Texas.

Cheney visited the State Operations Center Saturday to learn how Texas dealt so effectively with the consequences of Hurricane Katrina. He received a briefing by the state coordinator for emergency management and director of homeland security that focused on the Texas response to Katrina using the techniques developed by the CSR group, known as the Mid-American Geospatial Information Center (MAGIC). Cheney said the Texas response to Katrina has been very successful because Texas has a sophisticated system for accurately modeling the impacts of hurricanes, particularly coastal surge, and positioning resources based upon the modeling results.

Hours after Katrina hit New Orleans, MAGIC Program Manager Dr. Gordon Wells said Texas search and rescue teams began to receive information from emergency calls from cell phones in New Orleans. Working with Texas Task Force One, the MAGIC group would establish the GPS coordinates of the 9-1-1 caller whose street address automatically appears on calls to the emergency switchboard. MAGIC would then examine post-landfall satellite photos of those coordinates to determine the depth of floodwater using information on the city’s pre-flood surface elevations. Wells said the Texas Task Force One coordinator was then able to relay the satellite imagery and GPS coordinates from Austin to rescuers’ laptops or handheld devices by satellite telephone to tell them exactly where to go and whether they needed a boat or high-axle vehicle to reach survivors.

As rescue teams continue to comb New Orleans, coaxing remaining citizens to leave the devastated city, the MAGIC group is helping several agencies work together more effectively. Agencies such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Texas Army National Guard, and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department have created field offices in Louisiana, but sometimes have incomplete information about the locations and actions of other agencies in the same region.

Gayla Mullins, another MAGIC member, is in contact with leaders of each organization daily, and creates maps showing the locations of all the agencies so they can better coordinate their rescue efforts. So far, Texas teams have rescued more than 25,000 survivors.

“They did all of the rescuing,” Wells said. “We just helped to get them to the right location.”

But saving survivors was only the first step. Working with the American Red Cross and Salvation Army, MAGIC team member Dr. Linda Prosperie maintains the primary Texas shelter database.

Now every morning and evening Prosperie works with the state’s mass care coordinator to gather up-to-date information about shelter locations, space availability, volunteer and staff availability, and food and water resources. She creates a map showing exact GPS locations and evacuation routes. Wells said the number of shelters that popped up far exceeded officials’ expectations.

They were “in places you’d never expect to see a shelter appear,” Wells said.

The MAGIC program objective is to combine satellite and aircraft data with other geographic information to monitor and plan responses to natural and man-made disasters. Other efforts focus on using satellite
measurements of regional vegetation indices to measure drought stress, assess rangeland health and assist water resource management in Texas.

A key interest in the MAGIC effort is modeling and forecasting the impact of hurricanes on the Texas coast. For example, Wells said, he would create a computer simulation of a large hurricane hitting Galveston, Texas, and then show state and local officials the possible damage to allow them to determine proper responses, including when to order evacuations. 

MAGIC practiced dealing with a real hurricane two years ago when Hurricane Claudette hit the Texas coast. Using its direct broadcast satellite receiving station, the team provided officials with up-to-date information about the hurricane’s location and assessed damages after landfall.

In the next few weeks, federal agencies in Louisiana may begin taking over the relief effort. Until then, Wells is helping Louisiana agencies at their disaster field offices. Because they lack a telecommunications infrastructure, Wells sends portable computer hard drives containing satellite data to the field offices via Texas Civil Air Patrol aircraft.

In addition, the group offers assistance to environmental organizations, such as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality as they begin cleaning up the massive pollution that Katrina unleashed in the New Orleans area.

Even after federal agencies begin to manage the situation, Wells said he plans to study Katrina during the next year. He wants to research the wind fields from the hurricane to find out how the wind damaged buildings along the Mississippi Gulf Coast and in New Orleans. The information will make possible more accurate damage forecasts for future hurricanes. Wells said the storm surge from Katrina helps to validate his hurricane computer simulations of flood levels and their timing based on the magnitude of the hurricane.

For more information contact: Becky Rische, College of Engineering, 512-471-7272, or Dr. Gordon Wells, 512-232-7515.