Thursday, June 25, 2009

Who ya gonna call?

Another year, another hurricane season. Last month, NOAA, predicted a 50% chance of a "normal" 2009 hurricane season. A normal Atlantic hurricane season, 01 Jun - 30 Nov, has 6-14 named storms, 4-8 hurricanes and 1-3 major hurricanes (Category 3 with 111mph winds). Earlier this month, Colorado State University Department of Atmospheric Science predicted 11 named storms, 5 hurricanes and 2 major hurricanes for 2009. In 2008 CSU had correctly predicted an above average season (we had 16 named storms).

One thing about hurricanes - they are pretty big. So even for well-prepared and well-equipped nations, a whack from just one hurricane can often be just too big to handle alone. So, if it does happen, who can we call?

In the early phase of search and rescue lives hinge on swift rescue and the provision of clean water (most humans can't survive more than three days without water), basic food and basic shelter. However for the response to remain effective when thousands of people are affected, information on the needs of the population also needs to be collected and effectively channeled to available assistance. Information is clearly not as important as water and food, but compounded suffering only days later can be avoided if the humanitarian effort also gathers and uses strategic information. This is where GIS can play an important role, so with that consideration in mind, here's a calling list that countries or humanitarian agencies can use:
  • CDERA - The Regional focal point for disaster response for english-speaking CARICOM Countries based in Barbados. Not known to have GIS capabilities but sometime in the (near?) future will have a WebEOC (Emergency Operations Centre) built by the US military to "facilitate more effective communication and coordination among the CDERA Coordinating Unit, affected countries and supporting agencies through real time sharing of critical information".
  • SERVIR - A Regional facility based at CATHALAC in Panama with extensive GIS capabilities including a bunch of folks knowlegeable about applying technology. It has a very good bilingual portal and has produced information products in disasters such as maps of the May 2009 earthquake in Honduras. So far, it seems focused mostly on serving the spanish-speaking Central American countries but renders assistance elsewhere too.
  • Disaster Charter - Based in Vienna (I think; somewhat ironically it doesn't make contact information easily available) and provides maps and/or imagery of disaster areas based on a wide range of satellite sensors, but only when "activated" via a single confidential number. This modus operandi seems needed to protect the resources of the contributing space agencies from being accessed will nilly.
  • UNOSAT - This UN agency is based in Geneva and it "[acquires and processes] satellite data to produce and deliver information, analysis and observations to be used by our partners and beneficiaries for relief". Has access to and makes use of the Disaster Charter.
  • OCHA - OCHA has bases in many countries in the Region. It can mobilise a UN Disaster Assessment and Coordination Team (UNDAC) into affected areas and provides "information management tools for use by humanitarian response agencies to assist in planning, response and coordination". OCHA has certainly made use of external mapping skills in responses in the Region and is apparently trying to do more of the same itself.
  • MapAction - A UK-based NGO with sections in Germany, Trinidad and Guyana. It provides a well-trained and equipped rapid mapping cell, on site, helping government and other responders with situation maps. It mobilises in hours and responds to requests by countries, regional disaster focal points or international humanitarian missions; and eventually hands over to in-country skills after a few weeks when the situation stabilises. The most recent mission in the Region was in Haiti at the request of the IFRC where they worked alongside UN OCHA, the Haitian Directorate of Civil Protection (DPC) and others in the emergency caused by the 2008 hurricanes.

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