Skip to main content

Cornell Web site will aid Gulf Coast recovery with precise geographic data

A Web site being developed at Cornell University will give reconstruction workers and researchers access to detailed information on the status of critical infrastructure in communities along the Mississippi coast, tied in with existing information about the location of roads, bridges, public and private buildings and even economic and demographic data about the region.

A team from the Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research (MCEER, usually pronounced "Em-sear") began Sept. 6 to survey Mississippi coastal communities, collecting this and other information and keying it to precise locations determined by GPS locators. The information will be relayed daily to Cornell's Ithaca campus and added to a Geographic Information System (GIS) database that will be accessible on the Web through a map of the Mississippi Gulf coast. Initially, the team, which includes experts from the State University of New York at Buffalo, California Institute of Technology, Texas A&M University, the New York State Department of Transportation and a private company called Image Cat Inc., which specializes in satellite imagery, will concentrate on the cities of Biloxi, Gulfport and Long Beach.

Arthur Lembo, a Cornell research associate in crop and soil sciences, developed the database and Web site, similar to one he created in January to assist recovery workers following the devastating tsunami in Sri Lanka. One of the things that helped, he said, was that the state of Mississippi had already made available online an extensive database of geographic information about the state, including roads, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure. "It was there yesterday when I went looking for it," Lembo said, noting that about half of U.S. states make such information available. As the MCEER team reports back, their information will be added to the Mississippi information already in the Cornell GIS database.

To reconstruct a community following a major disaster, you need details: What is the condition of key buildings -- schools, firehouses, hospitals, government centers? Which bridges are usable? What's the condition of the water and power systems? Later, researchers will want to examine the same data to make recommendations on how to make the infrastructure more resistant to damage in the future.

"What we're doing is interesting in that it goes beyond engineering into the social and economic aspects of the communities. This helps to set policy and procedure for emergency response and subsequent recovery of communities," said Thomas O'Rourke, the Thomas R. Briggs Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, who heads Cornell's contingent in MCEER. "Once you put this into GIS, you can immediately combine the damage areas with the social and demographic characteristics of what happened."

GIS systems are based on a standard format for encoding information that is tied to a spatial location and can include everything from physical features of a site to demographics. A GIS database can supply the precise latitude and longitude of a single family home and maybe even tell you who owns it, along with the general economic status of the neighborhood. Data made available in GIS format can be used to make maps, charts and other presentations, which often combine information from a variety of sources. To create the Cornell site, Lembo used a commercial GIS map-making application called Manifold.

Users of the Cornell site can turn the various data sources on and off on a map displaying, for example, hospital locations, roads, waterways or power lines. They may click through to high-resolution satellite images showing the degree of inundation of an area, or digital photos and video taken by the MCEER team of individual buildings, bridges and other key infrastructure components. For the time being, Lembo said, the Web site will be made available only to professionals, to minimize demand on the server. Eventually the site will be accessible through the Equipment link on Cornell's Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES) site, managed by David Ash, IT specialist in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

MCEER is a consortium of universities funded primarily by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study ways to reduce infrastructure damage from earthquakes. NEES, also funded by NSF, is a network of laboratories contributing to the MCEER effort. O'Rourke and Harry Stewart, Cornell professor of civil and environmental engineering, are co-principal investigators for Cornell's NEES lab. In recent times MCEER has expanded its scope to include other natural and man-made disasters. "We are going to be learning from the hurricane but with applications to different natural hazards," explained O'Rourke.

MCEER is also supported by New York state, the Federal Highway Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), other state governments, academic institutions, foreign governments and private industry.


Media Contact

Media Relations Office