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Hurricane Dorian

In Hurricane Dorian’s Wake, Maps Provide Essential Insights for First Responders

Maps reveal how people move during an emergency, and who may be most vulnerable.

Homes with missing roofs after Hurricane Maria in 2017. With new mapping technology, humanitarian organizations are able to determine who is most vulnerable in an emergency and where to direct aid. (Lara Cooper/Direct Relief)
Homes with missing roofs after Hurricane Maria in 2017. With new mapping technology, humanitarian organizations are able to determine who is most vulnerable in an emergency and where to direct aid. (Lara Cooper/Direct Relief)

Defying most forecasts, Hurricane Dorian largely spared Puerto Rico Wednesday and now threatens Florida, which is under a state of emergency. This surprising path has manifested itself despite decades of research, huge data sets, and advancing technology.

Far less data exists for an equally, if not more, confounding element of a storm’s impact — population movement. But that’s starting to change, as a result of new sources of data from Facebook and analysis by Direct Relief using GIS mapping.

Already this year, it is possible to compare what happened in the run-up to Hurricane Barry in Louisiana last month and Hurricane Dorian.

Prior to Hurricane Barry, New Orleans residents of the higher income Uptown area, who use the Facebook app, evacuated at a rate of 6%. Yet, app users in the Lower Ninth Ward largely stayed in place, despite evacuation orders, according to exclusive Facebook-provided data to Direct Relief. Facing Hurricane Dorian, there was up to a 70% drop of Facebook app users in San Juan, Ponce, Ceiba, and several other coastal cities on the island compared to before the storm made landfall yesterday, according to Andrew Schroeder, Direct Relief’s Director of Research and Analysis.

The ability to track population movement is just one of many real-time pieces of actionable information compiled by Direct Relief’s Research and Analysis team. The team is able to chose the most relevant and actionable data in a given situation to be included in a geographic information system (GIS) map. The map created for Puerto Rico Wednesday was designed to be most useful for the island’s publicly-funded Primary Health Association, ASPPR, which supports a network of local community health centers and providers.

“The goal was to empower ASPPR and any health system or health center to understand who is in their neighborhoods,” Schroeder said.

The map was shared with ASPPR Wednesday.

Of particular concern to the health providers ASPPR supports are vulnerable populations, such as young children and the elderly. The Esri-hosted GIS Map includes the ability to identify these populations. Additionally, users can see the locations of local healthcare facilities as well as which ones have solar power and cold chain capabilities, which allow medicines, like insulin, to keep cool. Other data layers include the locations of mobile medical units and Direct Relief’s Hurricane Preparedness Modules.

GIS maps allow a viewer to see different data sets overlaid onto a geographic area. For disaster response, the application can be invaluable in quickly giving first responders and healthcare providers an understanding of salient data, such as the number of clinics, at-risk individuals, and supplies in an area.

GIS Map of Puerto Rico featuring several data layers. Click to explore. (Direct Relief)

During Hurricane Barry, Direct Relief’s maps were shared with the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. Though that storm was not as serious as anticipated, Chris Guilbeaux, Assistant Deputy Director of  Emergency Management, said he thinks Direct Relief’s GIS maps can “help the government be more efficient.”

“Within a minute you can identify your areas and download your report,” said Anna Lopez-Carr, Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist at Direct Relief.

The map displays data from both Facebook and publicly available sources. Facebook shared the anonymized data with Direct Relief, which is sourced from its mobile users, all of whom have opted-in to have their location history shared. Facebook’s methodology for anonymizing user data in this application has been open sourced, allowing anyone to review it, according to Alex Pompe, lead spokesperson for disaster maps at Facebook.

By applying this data, health centers can tailor their approaches in the wake of the storm.

“They will able to know which communities are most at-risk in the area of interest to them, as well as how many people, literally, are there: it’s not just ‘Oh, that neighborhood is in trouble,’ but is it 20 people? 40? 60?” said Schroeder.

The map was designed for ease of use and is completely customizable, allowing users to define very specific areas on the island to analyze.

“Basically, areas of interest can be defined according to however users of the map would find it helpful to do so,” said Schroeder, noting that users can analyze a single street or the entire island with equal detail. The map is also color coded, so users can easily see areas of relatively high (in red) and low population (in blue) density.

Schroeder’s team hopes the map will prove to be useful after Dorian dissipates, as part of the long-term effort to improve community resilience on the island. In the coming days, Direct Relief will also be applying past lessons towards a Florida-specific GIS map.

“Every hurricane that happens teaches us a little more about how we need to get smarter about our response efforts, not just in terms of what people need, but how people react in a crisis,” Schroeder said.

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