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Developing Digital Tools to Help Hurricane Dorian Recovery Efforts

USF graduate student and DHHC researcher Kyutae Ahn.

Just days after Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas, researchers at the University of South Florida were working to develop digital tools to aid in the recovery efforts across some of the hardest hit areas.

Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology, researchers with the USF Libraries Digital Heritage and Humanities Collection (DHHC) were able to map the footprints of more than 600 homes and structures destroyed by the storm, and have continued assessing aerial imagery to map footprints of damaged and destroyed structures across islands and communities in the Bahamas.

“We know from responding to these sorts of events that the landscape that is there today, won’t be there after the storm,” said Lori Collins, PhD, co-director of DHHC and a research associate professor at USF. “So, to have a tool available that can provide corollary information to those working on ground can be critical. That’s what we’ve created in the aftermath of Hurricane Dorian.”

Collins’ team focused their initial efforts on Marsh Harbour, an area of Abaco Island devastated by the category 5 storm that hovered over the area for nearly two days. DHHC graduate student Kyutae Ahn, along with DHHC GIS Analyst Denise Wright, analyzed aerial imagery and remote sensing information taken before the storm to create an initial comparison model. When used in conjunction with images and data collected post-storm, the tool provides critical insight for recovery and relief workers.

Ahn concentrated his effort on two immigrant neighborhoods, ‘The Mudd’ and ‘Pigeon Peas’, which media reports say are almost entirely destroyed. By sharing the data with resource managers and responders on the ground, this USF effort is helping crews make sense of the piles of destruction they’re encountering and helping them in orienting to what used to be there before Dorian hit.

“It’s extremely rewarding to have the chance to apply my research focus to something that can really make an impact,” Ahn said. “The GIS techniques that we’re using in this project can be applied to so many different areas, but to be able to work on something that can make a real difference in a time of need, that’s definitely gratifying.”

“As a preeminent research university, we have the ability and responsibility to help when we can and provide these types of assistance, bringing an added level of importance and immediacy to what we do,” Collins said.  “This is also a way for students to gain valuable, practical experience and a good example of how they’re making an impact globally.”

As a center within USF Libraries, DHHC uses cutting-edge tools and techniques in reality capture, 3D and spatial documentation to record heritage sites, landscapes and objects from around the world. The team is creating digital learning tools and library collections that promote heritage preservation research, education and tourism interpretation strategies.

Collins says that while heritage site preservation and education remain the center’s primary objective, projects like this are a reminder of the profound impact GIS techniques can have on people around the world.

Researchers hope to continue mapping and adding to the spatial database for the Bahamas relief effort, including documentation of environmental concerns, like oil contamination and spill extent areas, and looking at important cultural and natural heritage sites that suffered impacts from Dorian.

To learn more about the work DHHC is doing around the world, visit their website.

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