By Wilson Yee, M.SAME, John Gee, P.E., M.SAME, and Janine Polinko Latham, GISP, M.SAME
As environmental unknowns encroach each year, data- driven, geospatial solutions and approaches are becoming more critical to organizational and community resiliency. Today’s world requires adaptive technology that can meet teams on the ground.
A pair of recent community-level projects, one funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the other, located in the Navajo Nation, demonstrate the power of the right data, made visual, to quickly organize, connect and empower teams and stakeholders addressing emergency situations.
In New Jersey, coastal residents formed a nonprofit organization and worked with FEMA to better prepare against major weather events and weekly flooding through the creation of a new community communication mobile app that leveraged geospatial data. Similarly, a geospatially enabled outreach strategy increased awareness among tribal residents of the Navajo Nation, concerning the capabilities and location of newly constructed safe water access points.
ADDRESSING COMMUNITY FLOODS
In fall 2012, Superstorm Sandy ravaged the Eastern Seaboard. In the wake of the storm, which was the most destructive natural disaster ever to hit the Garden State, a group of coastal New Jersey community officials met to discuss recovery efforts and identify common flooding and resiliency issues. Nonprofit organization New Jersey Coastal Coalition Inc. (NJCC) was formed to address flooding and resiliency issues in a comprehensive, coordinated, and cost-effective manner.
NJCC members recognized a need for real-time and effective communication—not only before and after major storms, but also during lesser but more common nuisance events. Such “sunny day” flooding is a public safety hazard that damages property and overburdens safety personnel by necessitating additional traffic management or assistance in temporary evacuations. It can occur along coastal communities during high tides, full and new moons, and even on clear days with windy conditions.
To meet this real-time communication need, NJCC, working with Weston Solutions, envisioned a mobile-friendly application for public alerts and approached FEMA about funding. Through these discussions, FEMA recognized that a web app would also be useful in preparing for major storm events. If communities could broadcast key location details through an app, FEMA could access this information and begin relief effort planning prior to arriving on scene. A grant was awarded for a pilot version in 2019, and in July 2021, after additional annual grant funding by FEMA, the app was released for public use.
The app is operated by local communities that are members of NJCC, and each jurisdiction is provided its own version. Subscribers receive text and email alerts based on inputs from the community. These messages describe the flooding event and provide directions to the user to avoid danger and property damage. Users can access real-time mapping of current flood limits, weather radar and weather warnings provided by the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, onscreen maps showing areas of frequent flooding, and webcam views and maps of evacuation routes through the ArcGIS StoryMap.
The app is also an asset in long-term flood preparedness. Archived information can be used to identify recurring flooding, which helps municipalities make sustainable, informed recommendations around flood mitigation priorities. Archived flooding occurrences can also be used to justify grant requests from FEMA to construct solutions to prevent future flooding.
Communications produced using the app may be eligible for points from FEMA through the Community Rating System, since the NJCC has developed a multi-jurisdictional program for public information in partnership with the agency. The Community Rating System is part of the National Flood Insurance Program, and the points earned can reduce insurance premium rates for community residences and businesses.
Today, the app is being incorporated into the alert systems for nine NJCC member communities, with several hundred users signed up. A challenge to adoption is the lack of personnel to predictably input flood information during a storm, but a recently proposed solution would provide alerts automatically by using sensors installed in key locations. These measurements would be used with digital topography to identify the flooded area and then issue pre-recorded text and email updates, allowing both manual and automatic alerts to be sent when needed.
SECURING WATER ACCESS
Another way geospatial data is being leveraged to advance resiliency solutions is in the Navajo Nation, which is the largest tribal nation in the United States and comprises 110 chapters. Among the longstanding environmental justice issues tribal residents face is legacy uranium mining impacts. Many unregulated sources of water that have been in use for generations are known to contain contaminants tied to past mining activities and have not been decommissioned. Since an estimated 30 percent of the population lack piped water to their homes, residents must choose between hauling water from free but untested sources closer to their homes or purchasing water from public water systems for all their basic needs.
There is a need for subsidized water points that are regulated, routinely tested, and safe for use. Providing safe water reduces well-documented health risks, including elevated incidence of gastrointestinal illnesses. An increased need for handwashing and sanitizing requirements during the pandemic highlighted the inequity and need to prioritize water access.
It was critical that Navajo families get key information about new water access services during the pandemic. In March 2020, several federal agencies (Indian Health Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Reclamation, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, and Environmental Protection Agency) came together with Navajo Nation public health, water resource, and environmental agencies, universities, and nonprofits to form the Water Access Coordination Group.
The group implemented a multimodal communications strategy to support clean water access for the Navajo Nation, incorporating chapter-led outreach, radio and print advertisements, and an information hotline. Released in August 2020, the web-based ArcGIS StoryMap “Navajo Safe Water: Protecting You and Your Family’s Health” became an essential component of an integrated public messaging campaign. It provided a space to host resources like fact sheets, interactive maps, and downloadable reports for mobile water haulers and agency decision-makers alike.
The StoryMap captures the best information about subsidized water point locations; operational hours and availability of other water collection resources; bilingual audio and video content; an alert signup system for text and email updates; and a repository of bilingual resources and operational trainings far beyond efforts typically deployed in federal responses.
Since its release, the StoryMap has continued to add valuable content to keep community awareness levels high. Additionally, focus groups and key informant interviews are underway to further understand access barriers both for immediate needs and future planning and preparedness.
The Water Access Coordination Group also has identified remaining barriers for those residents without transportation to haul their own water, who are usually elderly and in remote areas. To address this issue, the group will be rolling out a pilot potable water delivery program in fall 2022, partnering with tribal entities as well as the nonprofit Dig Deep.
TOOLS FOR TOMORROW
Each of these projects, in New Jersey and the Navajo Nation, used Esri’s ArcGIS Enterprise Platform and associated StoryMaps application—a geographic information system for creating, analyzing, and using geographic information while communicating this data through a digital visual story to its stakeholders. As the need for custom, real-time information increases, tools able to meet teams where they are on the ground are increasingly important.
To build confident readiness for tomorrow and bolster the resilience of our communities, data-driven approaches able to adapt to increasingly disruptive environments are needed. Geospatial approaches empower project teams and stakeholders and provide critical connections to vital information during emergencies, when time is of the essence.
Wilson Yee, M.SAME, is Project Manager, John Gee, P.E., M.SAME, is Principal Project Engineer, and Janine Polinko Latham, GISP, M.SAME, is Technical Director, Weston Solutions Inc. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; john.gee@ westonsolutions.com; and email@example.com.
[This article first published in the September-October 2022 issue of The Military Engineer.]