As Hurricane Claudette churned toward the Texas coast in mid-July,
it wasn’t the only thing on the move.
Up and down the coastline
and points inland, emergency workers set up evacuation shelters,
stocking them with food and water.
Officials plotted evacuation routes and made sure prisons along
the coast were secure. Rescue teams prepared for action.
The team headed by Gordon Wells at the Center
for Space Research puts satellite and radar images together
with ground-based information
to help crisis agencies deal with disasters. Receiving stations
like this one receive 20-30 gigabytes of data each day from
the Governor’s Emergency Management Council coordinated
those efforts with help from The University of Texas at Austin’s
Center for Space Research (CSR).
The CSR team, using satellite images
of the storm and data flowing from 34 state agencies, provided
the state emergency coordinator
with up-to-the-minute information showing where the storm was,
where it was going and where shelters and aid were in relation
“They can see where the state’s assets are in real
Dr. Gordon Wells, program manager of the CSR unit doing the mapping.
within CSR is called the Mid-American Geospatial Information Center
(MAGIC). It grabs information from satellites—such
as the path of Claudette—and other remote sensing instruments
and applies ground information—such as databases of evacuation
routes—and shows their relationships.
MAGIC put itself on
the map earlier this year when it helped in the search for debris
from the space shuttle Columbia.
information from the field, Wells and his crew rapidly put together
maps of where the shuttle debris fell. The quick action
helped officials secure the locations and get an early look at
the pattern of the debris, which would help them try to determine
The group’s encore came with Claudette’s
approach in mid-July.
Wells and his team tracked the storm around
the clock as it rolled along the coast. When Claudette appeared
headed for the Brownsville-Matamoras
area, the CSR maps showed the area’s shelters and other operations.
Then as Claudette’s path shifted farther up the coast, so
did the representations from the CSR. The storm made landfall on
July 15 near Port O’Connor, about 100 miles up the coast
from Corpus Christi.
Even after Claudette left Texas, Wells and
his team were still collecting and organizing information—this
time on the damage left by the storm’s short tour of Texas.
is a mapping specialist who’s worked for NASA, teaching
astronauts how to take scientifically-useful photos of the Earth
from space, and the state of Texas, where he worked on assembling
digital maps of the state and its resources.
The Center for Space Research team added
information about emergency facilities and other resources
Claudette making landfall to help emergency officials decide
where to send those resources.
“When I came to the university (in 1999),” he says, “I
took that role with me and we began to build it out.”
and his team perform a variety of mapping duties. They’ve
tracked water storage and use across the Rio Grande Basin in Mexico,
where sharing of water resources has been a point of contention
between the United States and Mexico. Using satellite imagery,
Wells can see water filling Mexican reservoirs and land greening
up where it’s been irrigated.
They’ve also put together
detailed elevation maps of the Brownsville area, tracked wildfire
damage and monitored previous
flashfloods and storms along the coast.
But it was the Columbia
work that really showed how information from the sky and the ground
can be put together and play a critical
“We were able to demonstrate really rapid results with mapping
large-scale events of that kind,” Wells says.
As Jack Colley,
state coordinator for the Governor’s Division of Emergency Management
in the Texas Department of Public Safety, watched the shuttle work
unfold, he realized how it could be used in other
“So much more information was immediately available than
ever before for a large-scale disaster and he immediately connected
it to a
dirty bomb detonation or an anthrax release that would be instantaneous
over a wide area,” Wells says.
In the case of the shuttle,
the maps showed more than where the debris landed. They could show
what kind of soil was in an area,
indicating how deep a shuttle piece might have been buried. Satellite
images collected after the disaster showed breaks in the tree canopies
which might have been caused by falling debris.
“This was a demonstration of the kind of technology the
state wants to put in place,” Wells says.
“Being able to model the storm, being able to look at Texas
in a virtual capacity that gives us a huge dimension we’ve never
had before,” Colley says. “It really enhances our capability
to ensure public health and public safety and understand if we’re
going to have an enduring economic impact with that.”
A Texas Senate resolution
issued in May commended Wells and his team for its work in the
MAGIC is based with the Center for Space Research
in the MCC building in north Austin. Through two new receiving
stations and another
station—the white domes on the building’s roof—every
day the group collects 20-30 gigabytes of information, the rough
equivalent of downloading 9,000 songs, from several satellites.
information is beamed down from satellites controlled by NASA and
the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency as well as those
operated by India and China. The data flow will increase about
10 times in 2005 when MAGIC becomes a collection facility for a
new German radar satellite mission.
During emergencies such as last month’s
Hurricane Claudette, the
team works from a spot front and center in the state’s
emergency operations center to provide up-to-date information
the state emergency coordinator.
CSR also incorporates into its
mapping information from airborne laser technology such as the
university’s LIDAR (Light Detection
and Ranging) mapping system.
Wells’ goal is to combine much
of this information with that contained in state databases of roads,
bridges, houses, schools,
petrochemical plants and many other assets to help plan and deal
In a wildfire scenario, Wells sees providing firefighters
with detailed 3-D information about the landscape and direction
fire to find an appropriate site where a crew could be dropped
in to build a fire break.
In a scenario aimed at prevention, Wells
would show residents models of what would happen to them when their
“What you want to do is inform citizens,” he says. “You
think you’re high and dry? We’re going to run a simulation” that will show whether they are.
He also foresees working with the Texas
Department of Transportation to track real time traffic flows during
an evacuation. The center
would also show local officials, who have to order evacuations,
that there are plentiful accommodations with food and water awaiting
“It’s a big confidence builder for them to be able to see,
hour-by-hour, the state putting these things into place,” he
“If an event occurs, then we will combine GPS locations
with digital aerial photography so that the field analysis of damage
put in context with the mapping,” Wells says. “I think
in the future we can do damage analysis much more efficiently and
While state leaders and agencies are hungry for
the data the MAGIC group can provide, Wells wants to take it step-by-step.
“We’ve got a lot of product demand by state agencies
and federal agencies already just for the sensors we’re accessing
says. “So I want to grow this slowly and make sure we’re
taking the right steps in the right sequence rather than diving
into the deep part of this pool, which can get very deep, very
Images courtesy Center
for Space Research