GIS Helps Joplin, Missouri Recover from Tornado Devastation

Powerful winds reaching 250 mph blew in the windows of St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin, Missouri, sending shattered glass on critically ill patients and sweeping furniture, supplies, and medicine into a whirlwind within the violently shaking walls of the hospital. With little warning, a multiple-vortex tornado plowed through the community on the evening of May 22, 2011.

Terri Edens was on her shift at the hospital as an emergency room nurse. She reports, “When things settled down, we evacuated patients and grabbed what medical supplies and water we could and continued their care in a parking lot outside of the hospital.

“When we got outside, we saw how extensive the damage was to the hospital and surrounding area. We then started to receive the walking wounded. A nearby production theater was flattened and its actors and attendees were streaming our way and people from area homes started flooding our ambulance bay doors,” said Edens.

St. John’s was one of several critical public facilities and homes severely damaged during this tornado that was the deadliest and costliest the United States has experienced in more than 50 years. In its path, approximately a mile wide and six miles long, the funnel killed more than 150 people and severely damaged or destroyed thousands of homes as well as several critical public facilities such as schools, fire stations, and the hospital.

Soon, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and partnering agencies were on the scene using GIS to help in the removal of massive amounts of debris and to make sure the construction of temporary housing and critical public facilities (such as schools and fire stations) was done on usable and safe land so that they can continue to serve the community.

Debris Removal

The tornado left approximately two million cubic yards of debris, which is equivalent to 400 football fields stacked three-feet high with rubble. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was called upon to manage the removal of the debris.An effective and efficient way to organize the removal of massive amounts of debris is to use GIS. The Army Corps knows this because they’ve been using the technology for years to help communities clean up after disasters. The Army Corps used GIS in the aftermaths of Hurricane Katrina, the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, and several wildfires in California.

“GIS is a computer-based information system and tool capable of capturing, storing, analyzing, and displaying location information,” said Stephen McDevitt, GIS, USACE, New York District, who is one of four national action officers responsible for deploying and managing GIS teams throughout disaster regions.

He continued, “The GIS takes data from various sources, including aerial photographs and electronic data, and combines these layers of information in various ways to create maps. These maps can be used to perform many different missions and solve complex problems.”

McDevitt deployed Army Corps GIS specialists to Joplin right after the devastation. They were joined by other agencies with whom they collaborated, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the City of Joplin, and the U.S. National Guard.

“From this team of agencies we collected a multitude of information that we layered to create maps, to assist with the many Army Corps missions,” said Stephen Long, GIS specialist with the Philadelphia District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

“We combined pre- and post-disaster aerial photography, parcel and property information from the city and county, sewer and water line information from utility companies, and electrical line data. In addition, Army Corps staff in the field collected data using GPS units, which we added to this mix,” said Long, who has been an active member of the Army Corps GIS team for 10 years.

These maps were updated daily and provided to the staff out in the field who were maneuvering 500 trucks around Joplin to remove debris. This was no easy task for them because many street signs had been blown away and structures destroyed. The GIS maps showed the people in the field where the streets were and what residential and commercial properties needed to be cleared.

On a map that resembles a Google Earth map, the team overlaid the street information and placed box outlines around each property and color coded them. A red outline meant the property owners signed a right-of-entry form allowing them to clear the property, a yellow outline meant a form wasn’t signed yet, an orange outline meant the clean-up was in progress, and a green outline meant the property has already been cleared of debris. The collected debris was examined, sorted, and much of it recycled.

Planning Temporary Construction

“One hour at the desk can probably save a whole day for one person out in the field,” said Nicholas Laskowski, GIS specialist for the Galveston, Texas District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.Along with the debris mission, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was called upon to manage the construction of temporary housing sites and temporary critical public facilities such as schools and fire stations. Some of the maps they created were used to help ensure that the land being considered for these missions was suitable and safe.

“The community selected several pieces of land [for] temporary housing and to relocate critical public facilities, but before a piece of land could be selected, we had to make sure it met certain requirements,” said Howard Ruben, NEPA compliance specialist, New York District, who volunteered to deploy to Joplin to make sure that all Army Corps construction locations complied with federal and state environmental regulations. Ruben said, “The land had to be away from the devastation and any flood zones and be near water, sewer, and electric lines, so that they could tap into these utilities.”

Also, in some cases, it was desirable to find land close to where the original critical infrastructure facilities stood. For example, many schools wanted to be close to their original location so children could resume getting to school easily. It was also important for the two temporary firehouses to be relocated near their original sites to retain full coverage of fire services in their communities.

“Not only did our maps show where there was safe land away from flood zones and near utilities, but specific property details,” said Long. “In the background of the map, additional information could be pulled up by clicking on the property. This information included the owner of the property, tax ID numbers, and square footage.”

If a property was in a suitable location, Army Corps’ real estate personnel could use this information to contact the property owner to see if they were willing to rent or sell the property so that the land could be used for temporary housing or to relocate a critical infrastructure.

Edens looks forward to the completion of the hospital’s temporary facility. “It will be very nice to have more space and solid walls again, but mainly we look forward to continuing to do the job we love, which is serving our community.”

DR. JOANNE CASTAGNA is a technical writer/editor for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, New York District. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at

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