Disaster Response, Disaster Risk Reduction, GIS, Imagery, Mapping, Volunteering

Assessing and Responding to the Beirut Blast through the Use of Imagery and Mapping Techniques

My colleague turned his phone to me and said, “Have you seen this?” Thinking that it was just another funny video created by one of the many internet users who are currently in lock-down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I braced myself. This time however, it was no joke!

On August 4th, 2020, a warehouse at the Port in Beirut, Lebanon, storing approximately 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, exploded, destroying nearby buildings and causing damage miles away.

Compare the images below by moving the slider. They show images pre-event on June 9, 2020 and post-event on August 5, 2020. In the image the port warehouses, and the grain silos can be seen. The destruction of the 120,000-ton capacity structure of the grain silo and disabling of the port, the main entry point for food imports, exacerbates concerns about food supplies for Lebanon.

Satellite images shows pre and post blast event in Beirut, Lebanon

Coincidentally, during my university days in Edinburgh, Scotland, I shared a flat with two amazing ladies who I grew very close to during my year abroad. Thankfully, I still maintain close contact with them, although it has been more than 16 years since we first met. One of them is from Lebanon and the other from Cyprus. Instinctively, upon realizing the severity of the situation that I witnessed in that video, I reached out to them both. My friend from Lebanon, now resides elsewhere. She indicated however, that many of her family members suffered damage to their homes. My Cypriot friend mentioned that they heard the explosion all the way in Cyprus and that it even felt like an earthquake!

Pictured below is a map showing the proximity of Cyprus to Lebanon, an approximate 265 km distance. I couldn’t help but think of the safety of my friends and their families.

Proximity of Cyprus to Lebanon

As a member of the humanitarian mapping charity – MapAction, I was thankful to learn that a 3 member group was being deployed to help! Even with the rising challenges of operating during the COVID-19 pandemic, this organization, as well as many others are ready to offer support in crisis.

Responding to the Beirut explosion

After being given the opportunity to attend an International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG) Earthquake Response Exercise (ERE) in December 2019 in Thailand, I have a deeper understanding and appreciation for the need of collaboration and communication between the teams that are on the ground responding to a disastrous situation. MapAction supports this effort by providing maps to help with co-ordination. The map below shows that in Lebanon, there are several teams on the ground, to include Urban Search and Rescue (USAR), United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) and the Red Cross. It is quite helpful when co-ordination locations are known by all the teams on the ground.

This is another map that has been provided by MapAction. It shows the area being divided up into more manageable sectors. The locations where bio hazards exist, have been identified and highlighted on the map.

During the past few days, many satellite imagery companies have offered their support to Beirut. This offering is welcomed, as it helps teams on the ground to conduct further damage assessment and provide service delivery to those in need.

The Disasters Charter has also been activated to respond to the Beirut blast. Though clouds obscure parts of this image taken via a Pleides satellite sensor, the map shows emergency shelters being set up, and highlights the location of hospitals in the area.

It is my hope and prayer that Lebanon receives the much needed support and humanitarian relief it requires in the aftermath of this disaster. #prayforlebanon

In my previous blogs I have indicated the importance of up-to-date imagery in responding to a disaster and also what led me to becoming a MapAction Volunteer. You can read them below:

Lavern Rogers-Ryan is a geospatial consultant specialising in disaster risk management and recovery. She is currently head of the GIS Centre within the Government of Montserrat. Learn more about geospatial services in disasters at www.lavernrogersryan.com.

Disaster Risk Reduction, GIS, Imagery, Mapping, Volcano

My career in GIS was subconsciously influenced 25 years ago by the eruption of Soufriere Hills Volcano

July 2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the eruption of the Soufriere Hills Volcano on Montserrat and presents an opportune moment for reflection.

I was only 13 years old at the time, but I do remember the chaos surrounding these events. It was a very uncertain time for those of us living in Montserrat. At the time I attended the Seventh-day Adventist School in Delvins. I remember exiting the classroom and looking up towards the heavens, like many of my peers. The sky was very dark that day, no one seemed to know what was happening. The picture below is symbolic of what has been etched in my memory.

Emission of ash from Soufriere Hills Volcano, Montserrat
https://www.bgs.ac.uk/discoveringGeology/hazards/volcanoes/montserrat/ash_and_mud.html

I remember the hustle and bustle of parents coming to collect their children. Unfortunately, some of us never had the opportunity to attend school in Montserrat ever again and our childhood friendships and dreams of experiencing life together on Montserrat were dismantled. My mother thought it best to send myself and my brother to live in Antigua with my Aunt because of the uncertainty with schooling and living in Montserrat. Now being a mother myself, I understand her decision.

Just as we began settling into the new norm of life in Antigua, Hurricane Luis, a powerful category 4 hurricane, hit Antigua on September 5th, 1995. This hurricane disseminated the country of Antigua causing damage and destruction to 45% of the residences on Antigua as it passed near 30 miles (48 km) to the north of the island. A recount of Hurricane Luis by Mr. Dale Destin can be found https://268weather.wordpress.com/tag/hurricane-luis/. This storm basically flattened many homes in Antigua, and my Aunt’s home was no exception. Thankfully, to meaningful friendships, my Aunt was able to find accommodation for us and her family elsewhere. So many additional complexities came about from these developments. For example, I remember having to attend school on a shift basis (interestingly, similar to my daughter’s experience during the COVID-19 pandemic now) and spending many nights studying by flashlight and candle light in order to fulfill the requirements for the next day of school.

Although, I was out of Montserrat physically, Montserrat was constantly on my mind. We were always tuned in to ZJB radio to keep abreast of any updates and mostly because my mother was still on island. As a matter of fact, she never migrated!

My brother graduated from secondary school in Antigua in June 1997, and it was around this time that our capital, Plymouth was buried under pyroclastic flows (pictured below). There was no way, that my Mom was going to allow him to go back home. I believe that she was scared even for her own safety! I started thinking about whether or not I will ever be able to identify areas in Plymouth again. Such a tragedy!

Plymouth buried under pyroclastic flows, 1997
Source: https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2013/05/soufriere-hills-volcano/100509/

After I graduated secondary school in Antigua in a year later, there was still uncertainty in Montserrat. My Mom admonished that it was not the ideal time to return and encouraged me to use the opportunity to continue on to tertiary education. So I ventured even further away from home to pursue a 4 year Computer Science degree in Trinidad. Based on the ongoing situation in Montserrat, I opted to take summer courses which resulted in me completing my degree earlier. Foremost in my mind was how I could make a meaningful contribution to my island home.

I returned home after University graduation in 2002. I was pleased that so many new homes had been built in the north of the island and although businesses were scattered throughout the northern area, things were returning to some sense of normalcy.

New homes built in Lookout, Montserrat (Picture taken in May 2002)
Source:https://www.yachtanju.com/montserrat.htm

I remember having the opportunity to discuss GIS with a consultant who was visiting Montserrat to conduct training. He explained that it was a relatively new field of technology, but it can be used for disaster management along with many other things. He encouraged me to research, applying my knowledge of my recently earned degree to this emerging science.

I delved in, and the rest is history! I completed a Master’s degree in GIS within 3 years of being introduced to the topic. My research topic centered around the “Integration of Remote Sensing Techniques and GIS to Detect and Update Changes in Land Cover as a Result of Intra-island Migration on Montserrat.” Being able to apply my knowledge of GIS to the redevelopment of Montserrat and further assist in disaster management on island, has been my motivation. In retrospect, I can truly say that the eruption of the Soufriere Hills volcano 25 years ago, has influenced my career in GIS to date.

Post Script:

I want to say a hearty thank you to my Mom, who sacrificed everything and ensured that I had a Montserrat to come back home to! I love you Mommy!

Mommy and I.

Learn more about GIS in my previous blog posts below:

Lavern Rogers-Ryan is a geospatial consultant specialising in disaster risk management and recovery. She is currently head of the GIS Centre within the Government of Montserrat. Learn more about geospatial services in disasters at www.lavernrogersryan.com.

GIS, Imagery, Mapping

What is GIS?

Learning to read, my youngest daughter looked at her dad proudly as she shouted out the letters on his T-Shirt…“G I S!”. Then she looked at me inquisitively and said “Mommy, G I S?” I responded in the affirmative, “Yes sweetie, G I S!”

So, what is GIS?

This picture which I captured on my return flight to Montserrat, overlooking Davy Hill and Little Bay will help me to explain.

View overlooking Davy Hill and Little Bay, Montserrat

At first glance, buildings, roads, vegetation, hills and the ocean can be seen in my picture. GIS, which stands for Geographic Information System allows you to capture, store, manipulate, analyse, manage and present, this type of geographic data.

The unique aspect about GIS is that it allows you to store additional information, called “attributes”, about each feature. For example, attributes of a road may include its name, type, whether primary or secondary and its length. Similarly, attributes of a building, may include the owner’s name, a category of use, whether it is residential or commercial, the material that the building is made from, for example, wood or concrete, the roof type and also the number of floors.

Attribute data can be obtained from a number of sources or data can be captured specifically for your application. Spatial data can be obtained from satellite images, aerial photographs, scanned maps and similar resources. Essentially, any format of a geographical image with location or co-ordinate points can be used as spatial data.

The combination of spatial and attribute data gives GIS the capability of providing answers to complex questions. It is undeniably, the partnership of these two data types that enables GIS to be such an effective problem solving tool through spatial analysis.

To visualize large amounts of information interactively is one of the most attractive and useful capabilities of GIS. To do this, data is extracted and stored in the form of “layers”.  The image below captures graphically how these layers relate to the real world.

                           Representation of layers in GIS

GIS utilizes two primary data types: vector and raster. Vector data is represented as either points, lines, or polygons. So let’s go back to my picture of Montserrat. In that picture, the location of a particular facility, such as the new location of ZJB Radio in Davy Hill can be captured as a point, other buildings can be represented as polygons, along with the entire settlement area of Davy Hill and the roads can be captured as lines.

Contrastingly, raster data is best suited for information that does not have hard boundaries or locations. So again, let’s revert to the picture which I took. The hills and valleys which you can see are best represented as elevation or terrain modelling surfaces. Raster data is usually used to represent this type of data in a GIS. Data in rasters are viewed as a series of grid cells where each cell has a value representing the feature being observed. 

Unlike, traditional paper maps, GIS is fully interactive. It allows you to add new fields of data,  change the color scheme or form of the map, add text and move symbols around. GIS displays allows you to zoom and pan which offers new perspectives and new insights. These and a host of other capabilities give a user tremendous flexibility and power.

GIS is more than just software. It is a system where trained people and methods are combined with geospatial tools, to enable spatial analysis, manage large datasets, and display information in a graphical form.

GIS Day is celebrated annually, read more in my previous blog: https://lavernrogersryan.com/celebrate-gis-day-annually-and-dont-forget-the-cake/.

Lavern Rogers-Ryan is a geospatial consultant specializing in disaster risk management and recovery. She is currently head of the GIS Centre within the Government of Montserrat. Learn more about geospatial services in disasters at www.lavernrogersryan.com.

Disaster Risk Reduction, Imagery, Mapping

Satellite Imagery is A Powerful Visual Aid in GIS and Disaster Response

The earthquake events of August 21, 2018 which shook Venezuela, Trinidad and other neighbouring countries (https://www.usgs.gov/news/magnitude-73-earthquake-venezuela) reminded me that not all disasters can be predicted or come with a warning. Videos which showed the impact of the earthquake quickly filled my social media timeline, causing me to reflect on the training I had undergone as project manager for the International Charter Space and Natural Disasters (https://disasterscharter.org). This organization, once registered with, provides a series of support through the use of satellite imagery to assist in the aftermath of a disaster.

Satellite imagery is a form of remotely sensed data with proves useful in the occurrence of an unforeseen event and provides a powerful visual aid when utilized with a geographic information system (GIS). Disaster risk managers are better able to assess their region’s risk when they are able to compare pre and post disaster images.  This type of analysis enables relief workers to identify changes in the landscape, such as buildings which are no longer standing and roads which are obstructed. It is an efficient way to identify damage and conduct rapid impact and needs assesments. GIS supports the use of satellite imagery to locate damaged facilities, identify the type and amount of damage and begin to establish priorities for action.

As satellite sensors improve, satellite imagery is becoming more useful. One of my favourite places to explore satellite data is the USGS Earth Explorer Portal (https://earthexplorer.usgs.gov/). It provides an interface where one can search the available sensors to see the data that is available for a particular area of interest. The advantage of the USGS Earth Explorer is that it houses data from the Landsat Programme which has a 40+ year track record of image acquisition. It allows for free downloading of data over chronological timelines while providing a long list of satellites to choose from.

Additionally, capturing my interest for hours on end is the USGS Earth Now Viewer (https://earthnow.usgs.gov/observer). This viewer is truly remarkable as it shows the position of the Landsat sensor in real-time. It also gives a visual of the satellite images being collected when the sensor scans the earth.

The Landsat Program began with Landsat-1 in 1972 and Landsat- 9 is planned for 2023. Over the years, Landsat has enhanced the number of spectral bands, spatial resolution and spectral resolution. Landsat 1-3 sensors collected data in only 4 bands and at 60 meter resolution. Over time, this has improved, as Landsat 8 now collects in 11 spectral bands varying from 15 meter to 100 meter.

The Sentinel Satellites of the Copernicus Programme also provide free satellite imagery which can be downloaded at the Copernicus Open Access Hub (https://scihub.copernicus.eu/dhus/#/home). The Sentinel-2 provides some improvement to the Landsat data with sharper imagery of up to 10 meters. Sentinel-2 monitors more frequently with a revisit time of 5 days and captures land changes in 12 spectral bands, each ranging from 10 – 60 meters pixel size. The USGS Sentinel2Look Viewer (https://landsatlook.usgs.gov/sentinel2/viewer.html) allowed me to browse through some sentinel-2 imagery. I found relatively cloud free imagery of Montserrat (shown below) which was acquired on 12th April 2018. This is a plus as cloud-free imagery is not always available due to our location and climate.

With the assistance of a skilled technician, satellite imagery can be utilized effectively in disaster management especially during the response stages. By combining spectral bands and performing image classification techniques the capabilities of remotely sensed data can be fully utilized in disaster management.

 

Lavern Rogers-Ryan is a geospatial consultant specialising in disaster risk management and recovery. She is currently head of the GIS Centre within the Government of Montserrat. Learn more about geospatial services in disasters at www.lavernrogersryan.com.

Disaster Risk Reduction, GIS, Imagery, Mapping

Five (5) things GIS has taught me about Disaster Management

I am no stranger to the impact of disasters having survived Hurricane Hugo in 1989, and witnessed the Soufriere Hills Volcano disrupt everything I knew about life in Montserrat since 1995.

As I listened to the reports on the experience of our neighbouring islanders who were affected by the super hurricanes of 2017, Irma and Maria (which I now simply refer to as IRMARIA), I empathized.  Now as I watch reports of the experience of the residents of El Rodeo, Guatemala in dealing with the eruption of Volcan de Fuego which erupted on June 6, 2018, I am driven to share a bit of how my work can help countries manage disasters better.

Geospatial technologies have improved in recent years and are more efficient and reliable to enhance our planning, mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery from disasters.  The majority of data needed for these phases of emergency management is spatial, and once it is spatial it can be mapped and utilized effectively.

Over the years, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) has taught me a few things in relation to disaster management. Here are five (5) of them:

1.       Most emergencies don’t allow time to gather information.

2.       During an actual emergency there is no time for guessing or estimating, it is critical to have the right data, at the right time.

3.       Lack of appropriate information leads to poor planning and poor decision making.

4.       GIS provides a mechanism to centralize and visually display critical information during an emergency.

5.       GIS saves time, money and lives!

The road to recovery is often very difficult for anyone faced with loss after the impact of a disaster. Many of us on Montserrat however, built up our resilience as we reflect on the loss of homes – not just houses. We have embraced the challenge of recreating the places we lost. Unbelievably,  the Government Headquarters building in Plymouth was newly constructed and the Glendon Hospital was newly refurbished at the time of the eruption. Personally, I often reflect on the town centre which was thriving and bustling as it created jobs, enhanced livelihoods and held memorable spaces, such as “Evergreen Tree” and the “market” for social interaction.

A specialism in GIS allowed me the opportunity to support recovery efforts by utilizing data and producing maps that helped to manage evacuation paths, relocate families safely to shelters, assist in ash clean-up efforts by tracking progress and by utilizing the output of modelling scenarios to identify future impact areas.  GIS provides a mechanism to forge ahead and recover despite the impact of a disaster. Montserrat is now in a phase of re-development and GIS has contributed significantly to this. I do look forward to telling you more about how GIS can be used in disaster management.

 

Lavern Rogers-Ryan is a geospatial consultant specialising in disaster risk management and recovery. She is currently head of the GIS Centre within the Government of Montserrat. Learn more about geospatial services in disasters at www.lavernrogersryan.com.