Taking on the challenge of mapping disaster areas during a national emergency
Every state declared federal disaster areas during COVID-19, but other natural disasters are happening
Last updated 1/27/2021 at 4:17pm
For the first time in history, all 50 states were declared federal disaster areas due to COVID-19. At the same time, hurricanes, floods, wildfires and winter storms continued to hit communities already dealing with the pandemic.
Communities were overwhelmed and so was the U.S. Census Bureau's award-winning OnTheMap for Emergency Management data tool, https://onthemap.ces.census.gov/em/.
As each state becomes a disaster or emergency declaration area, real-time data on hurricanes, floods, wildfires and winter storms were updated but drowned out by the nationwide swath of COVID-19 disaster areas.
In order to show national weather events, we had to redesign the OnTheMap for Emergency Management tool.
We organized and grouped each natural disaster by individual threat and clearly displayed them on the map to help users identify and focus on specific events other than COVID-19.
The bright orange shading identifying Disaster Declarations transitioned into an opaque orange providing a starker backdrop for all emergency events. Now, users can choose events they are interested in by using the legend and map controls to the right of the map.
"Everything has changed," George "Chip" Walker, specialist assistant and co-chair of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Team, said. "Response teams have had to anticipate challenges due to the pandemic and adapt recovery operations."
Helping guide emergency management
When crises and emergencies happen, OnTheMap for Emergency Management helps decision makers plan, respond and launch recovery activities by providing timely access to detailed information about affected workforces and populations.
The information comes from a mix of data from the Census Bureau and other federal agencies such as the Department of Agriculture, Department of Interior, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.
Disaster declaration areas defined by FEMA include states, territories and tribal areas eligible for public and individual assistance.
OnTheMap for Emergency Management can help users identify areas affected by a disaster and identify social, physical and economic vulnerabilities. Users can pinpoint affected populations, and housing, and the impact on the workforce and industries.
Updates arrived just in time, Walker said, noting that "2020 has proven to be a historic active hurricane season."
The hurricane season had been predicted to be very active and in August, the NOAA increased the number of named storms from 19 to 25. The average season usually has 12 storms.
Changes to the data tool were made just before the season's 25th named storm, Hurricane Delta, and the hurricane season does not officially end until Nov. 30.
It has been a record-breaking year for many things, including wildfires.
2020 is also facing the potential of an above normal fire season in California, Oregon, Colorado and other U.S. states. As of Oct. 19, 2020, there had been 46,148 wildfires compared to 42,821 wildfires the previous year, with about 8.3 million acres burned.
OnTheMap for Emergency Management provides a link to the FEMA page that lists resources for financial assistance and information on areas under disaster declarations, https://www.fema.gov/disaster-responses.
Earlene K.P. Dowell is program analyst in the Census Bureau's Data Users Trade and Outreach Branch.