It is the Best of Times, 
   It is the Worst of Times

Ronald T. Eguchi
ImageCat, Inc.
Long Beach, Calif.
Email Ron at

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Thus begins Charles Dickens’ novel, A Tale of Two Cities. Dickens might have been describing the information technology explosion that all of us have witnessed since 9/11. How else do we describe the incredible push for new and advanced technologies, yet the failure to use these technologies effectively to prevent or minimize the catastrophes that have swept through the world in the past two years?

Disaster experts around the world have continually warned governments and the public about the possibility of “worst-case” natural hazard scenarios and their overwhelming impacts. Yet, planning for the occurrence of these events has fallen far short of need. The large earthquake that occurred off the coast of Sumatra, which resulted in one of the deadliest tsunamis ever recorded, was a painful reminder that living in some of the most desirable areas of the world does have its risks. We all have enjoyed the fun of restful visits to coastal resort communities all around the world, and we rarely think about earthquakes or tsunamis interfering with this enjoyment. Yet, they take us by surprise. Before these events do occur, there should be adequate education for everyone on what actions are appropriate, as well as an effective warning system to trigger the right actions.

Although predicted some years ago, the disaster in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was still a huge surprise to many, including some key government agencies. While one can argue that the calamity that occurred was brought on by the “perfect storm,” one cannot argue that the response by key government organizations, as they attempted to provide emergency support to New Orleans and to the other areas affected by the hurricane, was timely or effective. Whether the emergency response system was taxed at all levels of government to a point where it became dysfunctional will be a topic that will be discussed for many years. One can hope that such discussion will result in significant changes that will prevent this type of catastrophic failure from occurring ever again. Proper use of geospatial technologies could have helped alleviate some of the confusion and suffering of New Orleans’ citizens, and, properly applied, these technologies can help response teams to alleviate, and even prevent, the same kind of suffering in the future.

In both of these events, there were bright spots that had to do with technologies attempting to find some role in helping to mitigate the effects of these disasters. The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami were among the first events where satellite and airborne imagery of all types was being captured and studied. For example, the commercial high-resolution satellite data provider DigitalGlobe captured and immediately released images of the tsunami wave train hitting the shores of Sri Lanka. Also, spectacular before and after images of Banda Aceh showed very clearly to the world the level of devastation that had occurred in this event. Had these types of images been captured for all areas along Indonesia, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka in the first few days after the earthquake, a much better situational assessment could have been made and, perhaps, could have assisted in providing a more rapid and coordinated response to those most severely affected areas. This more rapid response would not have saved the majority of individuals who were killed in the tsunami, but it definitely would have alleviated much of the suffering and perhaps some of the lingering health issues that occurred weeks and months after the disaster.

In the same way, a more rapid response after Hurricane Katrina — especially in understanding the extent of flooding in New Orleans and the inundation areas along the Mississippi — could have provided a more realistic assessment of the needs and priorities in the first few days and weeks after Katrina made landfall. There were many useful images of these areas — and many taken very quickly after the initial onslaught of the hurricane. However, these images could have been more useful if they were geo-referenced to be more compatible with GIS systems.

We certainly have not seen the last of large natural catastrophes, and we certainly will not abandon the development and use of advanced technologies for disaster response. However, in order for these technologies to be effective in responding to the next wave of disasters, they must address the following issues or requirements:

First-responders and those individuals who provide technical support to this group must have timely access to all images collected after the event. This is especially true for sensors operated by all levels of government.

First responders must receive adequate training and education on how best to interpret and use this information for response and recovery.

Damage detection methodologies must be more robust. That is, they must be able to work with various levels of data resolution or sensor types. In the ideal case, data fusion should be emphasized, or at the very least, conclusions should be drawn based on independent assessments.

More emphasis needs to be placed on integrating simulation technologies (models that predict damage or impacts) with post-event imagery and data. Using simulation models as an initial a priori estimate of impacts and revising or calibrating this estimate based on real, post-event data will likely lead to the more accurate assessment.

We need to work towards online solutions where post-event imagery and any analyses of the event are posted on the internet and as close to real-time as possible. This way, a much larger audience will have access to this information, which will also help with response in many ways.

We must document our successes and failures with respect to the use and adoption of these technologies in every event, so that we can continue to improve the application and implementation of new and advanced technologies for disaster response.

Finally, more government support is essential— especially in the research area — to design, develop and test methodologies, systems, platforms, and other components, so that robust disaster response tools can be developed and deployed throughout the U.S., as well as around the world.

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