The GIS Response to the Hugo Tornado
By Dennis Fields, City of Hugo, Community Development Department
If I have learned anything, it is that no one expects a disaster, but being prepared for such an event could be the difference between life and death. Law enforcement, fire departments, and medical staff all train for these types of events and have an organized system for how to respond. How can local governments be prepared to aid these emergency personnel? One of the answers for Hugo, Minnesota was GIS.
Late in the afternoon on May 25, 2008, the City of Hugo, north of St. Paul in northern Washington County, was devastated by an F-3 tornado. It ripped through a residential neighborhood completely destroying homes, seriously injuring eight people and taking the life of a little boy.
Immediate Emergency Response
The response after the disaster started immediately. As emergency response teams searched the homes, they requested information and resources, and the city responded. In preparation for such events, the City of Hugo had put together large address maps of the city as well as address map books that showed greater detail. A few of these maps were already printed and taken to the scene immediately, and others would soon follow because the projects were saved as PDF documents, accessible to all city employees.
These maps were used by the fire chief front and foremost during the rescue operations. GIS maps were critical and were used to divide up the affected area into smaller, well-defined search areas, create a boundary around the more devastated area, and cross off homes as they searched for victims. Each team of rescue workers could take maps with them and associate the homes’ house numbers as they relayed the information back to the command post.
Days that Followed
The readiness that the city showed in aiding the emergency crews is still talked about, not only in the initial hours but in days to follow. The very next morning, before residents were allowed to return to their neighborhood, the city had inspected and created detailed maps showing the disaster boundaries, tornado path, which homes were deemed safe and which homes were uninhabitable (Figure 1). Using GIS was extremely important because we could make the updates to the maps frequently as new information was being provided. This information could then be printed, emailed, and posted online so those who needed the information could see it as each update was made throughout the day.
The utility companies also found our resources to be quite useful. The city provided maps to them describing which homes had been disconnected from utilities and which homes had not (Figure 2). These detailed maps were available to staff and emergency crews within the first few hours and helped them to organize their efforts.
The recovery started almost immediately, and GIS again played a crucial role. Not even a week later, the city had organized a massive clean up day with over 900 volunteers. GIS was used to breakdown the area into sections, displaying the command post, transportation routes, EMS staging areas, and other crucial aspects (Figure 3). This helped to organize and separate the large crowd into teams of volunteers.
Throughout the days following the tornado, and continuing still, city staff offered resources, including the GIS maps, to residents. The city’s website (http://www.ci.hugo.mn.us/) was updated several times a day displaying the information so we could keep our residents in the communication loop.
Preparation for the Future
Since the storm event, the city has looked at other ways we may be able to improve on our emergency preparedness efforts. We have created new map books that meet more specific needs for each department. These are now located in all public works and fire department vehicles.
Also, the city has talked about ways it can improve dispersing this information with county and other response teams in another emergency event. Staff needs to be even more proactive and is looking at ways to make this information even more readily available .
Although we may never know when we will see an event like this again, at least we understand the valuable role that GIS plays in such an event and we can prepare ourselves to react in such desperate times.
For more information, contact Dennis Fields at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-762-6311.