A Community of heroes

Professor helps 10th-graders map disaster areas

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By the time Tropical Storm Lee had ripped through Owego, N.Y., last September, it had weakened to a tropical depression. But for the village’s 4,000 residents, it was hard to tell the difference—95 percent of the community was already under water.

The town, just west of Binghamton, was in a state of emergency and needed disaster relief. A little more than two hours away, Brian Sheldon, a 10th-grade earth science teacher at Livonia High School, asked his students if they wanted to help.

“I was proud to see everyone’s hands shoot right up to volunteer,” says Sheldon. “I knew right away to call my friend Brian Tomaszewski to help with the technical side of the volunteer efforts.”

Tomaszewski, assistant professor in RIT’s Department of Information Sciences and Technologies, knows the importance of using geographic information systems, or GIS, and imaging science in disaster management.

“I wanted to go down because dealing with relief and recovery issues hands-on is critical to an academic person like myself who does research on disaster management,” says Tomaszewski.

The community center in Owego had been outfitted as an emergency services distribution point, filled with dry food, water and toiletries. As students assembled into teams, Tomaszewski asked if anyone was interested in geographic information systems and mapping.

“I was immediately intrigued,” says Audrey Redman, a 10th-grade student at Livonia High School. “I knew a little about damage assessment from reading articles beforehand, but I didn’t know much about GIS.”

Redman’s job was to join a basic inventory of Owego’s tax parcels, essentially a digital map showing how land is spaced out in the town, with a spreadsheet of damage assessments. Each parcel was rated by building inspectors based on the degree of damage—destroyed, moderate damage and medium damage. Equipped with mapping software called ArcMap, she began to massage the data into something useable for the recovery effort.

“We produced the color-coded map and visited the site to ground truth to verify the data,” says Tomaszewski. “The damage was astounding. You could see mud in the leaves of the trees, showing how high the water really went.”

“GIS is tremendously valuable,” remarks Sheldon. “Audrey had no idea what GIS was and just six hours later she had produced a map that painted an entirely different picture of Owego.”

Redman doesn’t know exactly what she wants to do for a career yet, but she says she will seriously look into GIS and disaster management as an option.

“Emergency crews were very grateful to Audrey for the maps that will help track recovery efforts in Owego,” says Tomaszewski. “It is great when we can enlighten someone about the power of technology and maps.”