Collecting and Assessing Storm Damage Goes High Tech

A new Web-based application made incident reporting more efficient and cut down the time it took to compile an assessment report in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
by , | December 5, 2012

Like many cities along the eastern seaboard, Norfolk, Va., experienced flood waters triggered by Hurricane Sandy in October. But unlike years past, where it could take days to calculate storm damage, a new Web-based application helped the city keep a close eye on Sandy’s impact in real-time, making incident reporting more efficient.

Called STORM -- System to Track, Organize, Record and Map -- the program was launched in 2011, and upgraded earlier this year to incorporate the city’s Department of Public Works’ damage assessment database, cutting down the time the department spends compiling an assessment report from three days to less than 24 hours.

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That’s good news for local governments as the number of large, damage-inducing storms has steadily increased in recent years, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other research groups, making accurate damage assessments even more crucial to wide-scale recovery efforts.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) requires cities to file the report within three days following a storm, so the agency can determine eligibility for federal funding assistance. The problem for Norfolk was that the process could go right down to the wire as inspectors and office staff put together the reports manually.

“The FEMA reporting is a bare bones estimate about the amount of debris and damages to infrastructure,” explained Alice Kelly, assistant director of Norfolk’s Department of Public Works. “That has always been a challenge, but having all the records in one place makes it easier.”

The reporting process consists of nine teams of inspectors who travel throughout the city after a storm and gather information about the damaged areas, according to Thomas Kapsha, records and research manager for Norfolk’s Building Safety Office. The teams call in the incidents to administrative staff that enter the data into STORM’s software program, which generates a report for both FEMA and the Virginia Department of Emergency Management.

STORM was developed in-house with the original goal of limiting data entry errors and improving the city’s GIS data. The program had its first test when Hurricane Irene hit in August 2011. City staff logged approximately 2,600 incidents, such as downed power lines, fallen trees, flooded streets or inoperable traffic signals. By comparison, 55 entries were made following Hurricane Sandy, which had a limited impact on the Norfolk area.

Sandy also marked the first weather event where the Norfolk Department of Planning was able to use the system to create real-time situational reports. The reports were updated every two hours to keep decision makers and inspectors abreast of where weather-related incidents were happening, what they needed to address once the storm subsided and where to place resources.

“We had the situational report function in STORM previously, but it only gave us active incidents,” said Fraser Picard, who led the programming team that developed the program and is Norfolk’s manager of Geographic Information Systems. “It now gives a summary of what is currently going on … and incidents that have also been closed or addressed so you get an overall picture.”

Any city employee can access STORM on the Web via mobile devices, such as smartphones, tablets or laptop computers. If a storm or power outage takes down the city’s data network, however, STORM is dead in the water. To make the application less dependent on the city’s network, Picard’s team is looking at creating a version of STORM that can reside on portable hard drives in case of an emergency.

“We can hand out a thumb drive and the entire application, and a copy of the database structure is already on there, and we can use that for data entry,” said Picard. “When the network comes back up, we take those thumb drives and merge it all into one database.”

Although STORM is Web-based and mobile, the inspectors still have to call into the office to report damage while out in the field. Kapsha would like to see the city issue more laptops or even tablet devices so inspectors can enter incident information directly to STORM, saving more time in the reporting process.

Another improvement under consideration is upgrading the mapping part of the application to make it more interactive and include photos, video and documents to various events. Kelly said that function will be extremely helpful, particularly for FEMA representatives, who would be able to better assess the actual impact and damage done by a storm.

While the final price tag for the damage from Sandy has yet to be set (estimates are as high as $50 billion in the New York region alone), the task of assessing storm damage will only increase over time, given the growing frequency of hard-hitting storms. The need for interactive, web-based applications, such as STORM, will certainly grow among local governments.

Norfolk is continuing to tweak its application -- and there’s even discussion of opening it up so the public can report incidents that they see. “That opens up another world of issues,” admitted Picard. “Right now, I want to get STORM refined internally before we think about opening up to the public to enter data.”


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