Hurricane Harvey
Conserving the Nature of America in the Southwest Region
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After the Storm
Rapid assessment leverages technology, diversity and teamwork to appraise hurricane damage

By Keenan Adams
October 2017

Greg Birkenfeld, left, and Andrew Stetter survey Hurricane Harvey shoreline at Aransas NWR. Credit: Jeff Adams USFWS. Greg Birkenfeld, left, and Andrew Stetter survey Hurricane Harvey shoreline at Aransas NWR. Credit: Jeff Adams USFWS.

Scott Bearer began a new job as a Landscape Ecologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in late spring, 2017. His work took him to the Chenier Plains Refuge Complex along the Texas Gulf Coast to assess prescribed burning opportunities for the management of vital wildlife habitats.

While there, endangered Whooping Cranes from the Louisiana population landed for the first time in the nearby marshlands. With Bearer’s background in managing Appalachian habitats for resilience, he quickly appreciated the role Gulf Coast refuge marshlands play as magnets for hundreds of thousands of migratory waterfowl, neo-tropical birds, and their critical environmental role.

These marshlands provide an essential service: ecological resilience to environmental disasters. They serves as filters and buffers to hurricanes and oil spills; they protect not only the ecosystems but also the people living in the interspersed coastal communities behind them.

A couple months later, Bearer found himself in the middle of the USFWS Hurricane Harvey Response using his geospatial skills to efficiently track our employees and families hit by the hurricane. He was charged also to determine the status of refuges’ buildings, infrastructure, and employee’s homes.

R-HAT collectorFigure 1. A view of the R-HAT Collector application on an IPhone used by the Incident Management Teams across the Texas Coast during Hurricane Harvey. The colored tool was used by teams that had internet capabilities, the black and white tool was used by teams with no connectivity. Credit: USFWS.

On Friday August 25, Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas near Aransas National Wildlife Refuge and then moved northward—at a tortuously slow pace. The storm bore down on many other USFWS personnel, facilities and refuges. The USFWS urgently needed a way to perform rapid damage assessments to account for people and resources. These assessments are vital for estimating costs after such incidents as fires, hurricanes and floods. 

The past informed the future; with hurricanes Rita and Ike in 2005 and 2008, respectively, refuge staff in the Southwest Region determined they needed to employ the most advanced technologies. While Harvey wasn’t a perfect storm, a perfect team came together to support the response and recovery.

Bearer coordinated an interdisciplinary hurricane response team that included Jeffery Adams, Prescribed Fire Specialist and Incident Commander of the Response Team; and the Southwest Region GIS team: Cinthia Eichhorn, Acting Regional GIS Coordinator / Data Manager; and Philip Marley, Gulf Coast GIS Specialist/Data Manager. The team members brought a diversity of skills and experiences to deploy a Rapid Hurricane Assessment Tool they called “R-HAT.” Training and buy-in from the field is often a challenge with new technology but with Adams leading the operations and using the R-HAT user guide, this obstacle was quickly overcome.

After the hurricane hit, R-HAT allowed the team to quickly assess hurricane damage to refuge assets in real-time, and to communicate that information to any appropriate level of the organization. The R-HAT tool is comprised of two interacting system products. First, a smartphone application allowed field personnel to report damage information with photo documentation, while also providing immediate environmental hazard information to other responders (Figure 1).

A screen capture of the Rapid Hurricane Assessment DashboardFigure 2.  A screen capture of the Rapid Hurricane Assessment Dashboard, showing the number of assets surveyed by the Incident Management (left top) and the Engineering Teams (left center), as well as the navigable map and photos taken at plots (right pane). Credit: USFWS.

Kathryn Sebes collects information on Hurricane Harvey damage. Credit: Jeff Adams, USFWS.

The Southwest Region GIS team set up an Operations Dashboard associated with R-HAT that provided leadership with live, instant updates of survey progress, on-the- ground descriptions, and photos to help further assess future needs (Figure 2). These applications were developed using ESRI’s ArcGIS online platform. This system also allowed the Southwest Region’s GIS team to make real-time changes, when the first-responders or leadership had suggestions or needed different information. Those updates were developed within hours of requests.

Since August 28, the response team has been able to assess 451 of 485 total assets in the Hurricane Harvey-affected zone. Traditionally, this would have been performed with pencil and paper, over the phone, many emails, and then transcribed to a database. R-HAT saved the government significant time and resources by providing an efficient and effective way to assess USFWS personnel, lands and structures. It has kept responders safe by providing real-time intelligence of local hazards. Through
ongoing Hurricane Response coordination with the USFWS’s Southeast Region, the Southwest GIS team rapidly worked to update the application so it could be deployed in time for Hurricane Irma before it fell on Florida.



Kathryn Sebes verifies smartphone-collected data on Harvey damage at the incident command post at Balcones NWR. Credit: Jeff Adams, USFWS. Kathryn Sebes verifies smartphone-collected data on Harvey damage at the incident command post at Balcones NWR. Credit: Jeff Adams, USFWS.

Loren DeRosear the Regional Fire Coordinator stated, "This is a leadership example of applying the latest technology to account for our greatest asset: our people.  We are saving money and maximizing safety of emergency responders using remote technology to assess damages so informed decisions can be made to recover our lands and communities."

Keenan Adams is the acting ARD for External Affairs in the Southwest Region.

Last updated: August 1, 2018