Gaining Perspective: Post-Hurricane Deployment to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands

In September 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria, both Category 5 storms, caused extensive damage to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. James Mawby and Shannon Reed were among several Dewberry employees deployed to the territories under the firm's Strategic Alliance for Risk Reduction (STARR II) contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). James is a Hazus practitioner and geographer with Dewberry and Shannon is a geospatial analyst.

The Critical Importance of Digital Data

James Mawby spent a month in Puerto Rico, from mid-October to mid-November 2017. "I was stationed at the FEMA joint field office in San Juan. FEMA took over the entire San Juan convention center. There were thousands of people in and out every day. They included federal, state, and local workers and many people from non-profit organizations. At any one time, there might have been 3,000 people or more in the field office. I was impressed with the sheer volume of people trying to help.

I had two main responsibilities. First, I was providing general support for any GIS or mapping-related work that needed to be done. Second, I was asked to help with recovering data that had been previously been compiled. I had been to Puerto Rico multiple times over the past five years on behalf of FEMA to assist FEMA's cooperating technical partner—the Puerto Rico Planning Board—in learning to perform risk analysis using FEMA's HAZUS-MH software and analyzing risk at the building level. Because of that effort, FEMA knew that the existing digital data would be helpful in terms of assessing where buildings were most likely to have been damaged as a result of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. I felt a little like Sherlock Holmes trying to help locate and organize the data so that it could be leveraged.

The FEMA joint field office in San Juan, Puerto Rico.The FEMA joint field office in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The work I was doing in Puerto Rico confirms that what I do on a daily basis at Dewberry is important and necessary for vulnerable communities. I often concentrate on working with digital data at the building level. When these disasters occur, we can tell which buildings are the most at risk. If data exists and is in good order, there's a lot FEMA and others can do to support communities. Anything we can do to encourage the development and management of this data, especially in regions susceptible to certain disasters, is vital. It helps to have the data about the buildings fully prepared ahead of time."

Saving Time on Site with Accurate Damage Assessments

In her first post-disaster deployment, Shannon Reed spent three weeks in November 2017 on the island of St. Croix, with additional visits to St. John and St. Thomas. "I was responsible for creating damage assessments. I looked at aerial photos and identified buildings that had been damaged. We also created a model to estimate damage to structures, using parameters such as the type of structure and building material, where it was located in reference to streams or flood zones, and wind data. We also did some site visits to calibrate the model.

St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands experienced extensive hurricane damage.St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands experienced extensive hurricane damage.

The model helped narrow down the number of onsite inspections that were required. In some cases, we could say, ‘you don't need to go to this site—the building was completely destroyed.' This saved FEMA time and money.

The local people were so appreciative of our help. When I arrived, only about 20 percent of the community had power and there was a lot of damage, but they seemed more worried about the people in Puerto Rico. I would definitely want to help with another post-disaster deployment. You gain a lot of perspective, and it feels great to help people out."