• When Hurricane Ike slammed into the north end of Galveston Island, Texas, on Sept. 13, 2008, thousands of residents were displaced from their homes. An estimated 2.6 million people in Texas and Louisiana lost electrical power.

    Luckily, the American Red Cross was ready for the storm, which made landfall with 177 kilometer-per-hour (110 mile-per-hour) winds, due in no small part to the emergency response organization’s use of GIS technology.

    Greg Tune, the lead program manager of the geospatial technology department at the American Red Cross, says GIS has allowed the Red Cross to make more informed decisions. A geographic information system (GIS), uses an integrated network of hardware, software, and data.

    “GIS allows the user to add information in the form of different layers to visualize what has happened or what you are trying to depict in the form of a geographic picture,” Tune says.

    For the American Red Cross, which has provided relief for those affected by disasters since its formation in 1881, that means adding vital data to maps. This data includes the path of a hurricane and the boundaries of various Red Cross chapters. Boundaries let the Red Cross know what chapters should receive emergency supplies and funds. GIS also allows the organization to highlight the locations of roads and natural features, including rivers and mountains.

    Before Hurricane Ike hit the Texas coast, Tune and Jim Dooley, the American Red Cross’ senior associate for geospatial technology, were following the storm with the help of GIS technology from their offices at the American Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D.C.

    “By being able to track the storm and monitor it, it helps from the planning standpoint,” Tune says. “The first thing that we are doing is we are generating these maps of the path of the storm.”

    Using GIS, the Red Cross was able to determine the best area in Texas to send resources, including 6,472 Red Cross workers.

    “We want to get things in the right area at the right time without being in harm’s way,” Tune says.

    GIS technology gave the organization the ability to make an informed decision on where to place their Hurricane Ike disaster relief operation headquarters by allowing Red Cross workers to view data on the track of the storm and compare it to the state’s highway system and the infrastructures of Texas’ major cities.

    Though Houston was only an hour northwest of where the storm was predicted to make landfall, a power outage in the city, along with a flood of displaced Galveston residents, combined to make it a poor choice for the disaster relief operation headquarters.

    “Dallas kind of percolated to the top as the best likely place to stage and pre-position stuff,” Tune says.

    After the decision was made to place the disaster relief operation headquarters in Dallas, the Red Cross sent trained workers to the city to talk with families about their disaster-related needs. The organization also stationed 26 emergency response vehicles filled with snacks and water in Dallas before Hurricane Ike made landfall.

    Once the storm barreled into Texas, the Red Cross used wind-profile maps, generated by GIS technology, to predict where Hurricane Ike would inflict the most damage.

    Tune says that the northeast section of a storm is usually where the strongest winds are located. “What the wind profile and those types of maps help us do is to start to pinpoint areas that we might look at doing mobile-feeding [an emergency response vehicle (ERV) distributing food and water], where we might send our damage assessment teams in,” Tune says. “Because, if you got limited resources, you don’t want to be going willy-nilly. You want to try and have a good plan.”

    During the Hurricane Ike disaster response, Tune and Dooley were uploading their GIS maps on internal Red Cross websites and sending reams of maps to Red Cross workers on the ground in Texas via FedEx. “It got to the point where we weren’t even keeping track of the numbers we were sending out, literally hundreds of large format [maps],” Tune says. “We were sending them down by the pound. I can’t tell you how many rolls of 100-foot paper we went through, but it was dozens.”

    The American Red Cross had been using GIS for over a decade before the Hurricane Ike disaster response. Tune says the first time the American Red Cross utilized the technology on a large scale was during Northern California floods of late 1996 and early 1997. “We had flood after flood after flood in parts of Northern California,” he says. “We generated boatloads of maps.”

    Since then, the American Red Cross has employed GIS in all of their major disaster relief efforts, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Hurricane Gustav in 2008, and the 2009 North Dakota floods.

    Tune says GIS technology’s greatest contribution to the Red Cross’ disaster relief efforts is that it allows the organization’s policymakers to view information clearly and therefore make more informed decisions.

    “I think it is visualization,” he says. “It’s the old ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’ When people see words on a piece of paper, it’s hard for them to understand what that means. I think that when you can show it graphically in the form of a map, it really stands out.”

    Tech Support
    This map, made with GIS technology, shows the busy 2005 Atlantic hurricane season.

    Famous Founder
    American Civil War nurse Clara Barton was inspired to open the first American chapter of the Red Cross in 1881. She learned about the International Red Cross Movement during a trip to Europe.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    affect Verb

    to produce a change.

    American Red Cross Noun

    nonprofit organization that provides resources to disaster victims.

    assess Verb

    to evaluate or determine the amount of.

    barrel Verb

    to collide at a high speed.

    boatload Adjective

    a large amount.

    boundary Noun

    line separating geographical areas.

    Encyclopedic Entry: boundary
    chapter Noun

    small unit of a larger organization.

    city Noun

    large settlement with a high population density.

    Civil War Noun

    (1860-1865) American conflict between the Union (north) and Confederacy (south).

    Clara Barton Noun

    (1821-1912) American nurse and philanthropist.

    coast Noun

    edge of land along the sea or other large body of water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: coast
    contribution Noun

    resource donated to a cause.

    damage Noun

    harm that reduces usefulness or value.

    data Plural Noun

    (singular: datum) information collected during a scientific study.

    decade Noun

    10 years.

    determine Verb

    to decide.

    disaster Noun

    terrible and damaging event.

    displace Verb

    to remove or force to evacuate.

    distribute Verb

    to divide and spread out materials.

    dozen Noun

    a group of 12.

    emergency Noun

    sudden, unplanned event that requires immediate action.

    emergency response vehicle (ERV) Noun

    car, van, or truck used to transport staff and supplies during an emergency. Also called a fly-car.

    employ Verb

    to hire or use.

    FedEx Corporation Noun

    American shipping and transportation company.

    flood Noun

    overflow of a body of water onto land.

    Encyclopedic Entry: flood
    generate Verb

    to create or begin.

    geographic information system (GIS) Noun

    any system for capturing, storing, checking, and displaying data related to positions on the Earth's surface.

    Encyclopedic Entry: GIS (geographic information system)
    geospatial Adjective

    having to do with geography and location.

    graphically Adverb

    visually or in art, signs, and symbols instead of words.

    hardware Noun

    computer machinery.

    Hurricane Gustav Noun

    (2008) storm causing damage to Caribbean nations, Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama.

    Hurricane Ike Noun

    (2008) storm causing damage to Caribbean nations, Louisiana, and Texas.

    Hurricane Katrina Noun

    2005 storm that was one of the deadliest in U.S. history.

    inflict Verb

    to force something on something else.

    infrastructure Noun

    structures and facilities necessary for the functioning of a society, such as roads.

    inspire Verb

    to influence to act.

    integrate Verb

    to combine, unite, or bring together.

    landfall Noun

    the act of a tropical storm meeting land.

    literally Adverb

    exactly what is said, without exaggeration.

    map Noun

    symbolic representation of selected characteristics of a place, usually drawn on a flat surface.

    Encyclopedic Entry: map
    mobile-feeding Adjective

    distributing food and water, as by an emergency response vehicle.

    monitor Verb

    to observe and record behavior or data.

    mountain Noun

    landmass that forms as tectonic plates interact with each other.

    nurse Noun

    person who cares for the sick.

    percolate Verb

    to filter or pass through a substance.

    pinpoint Verb

    to locate exactly.

    power outage Noun

    loss of electricity.

    predict Verb

    to know the outcome of a situation in advance.

    pre-position Verb

    to put in place before an event.

    ream Noun

    500 sheets of paper.

    resource Noun

    available supply of materials, goods, or services. Resources can be natural or human.

    river Noun

    large stream of flowing fresh water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: river
    road Noun

    path, usually paved, for vehicles to travel.

    slam Verb

    to collide with something with great power or force.

    software Noun

    electronic programs of code that tell computers what to do.

    storm Noun

    severe weather indicating a disturbed state of the atmosphere resulting from uplifted air.

    technology Noun

    the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.

    track Noun


    upload Verb

    to transfer electronic information from a smaller computer to a larger computer.

    via Preposition


    visualize Verb

    to make visual.

    willy-nilly Adjective

    in an unplanned or sloppy manner.

    wind Noun

    movement of air (from a high pressure zone to a low pressure zone) caused by the uneven heating of the Earth by the sun.

    wind-profile map Noun

    representation of visual information about the strength and direction of winds.