How GIS is Used in All Phases of Emergency Management

GIS Contributor


In this guest article, Brian Sekita discusses how GIS is vital to all phases of the emergency management process.

Natural disasters such as hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions have impacted the globe since the beginning of time. Technological improvements have exponentially improved the global community’s ability to respond to the challenges presented by unexpected disasters. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is a framework for gathering, managing, and analyzing data. Incorporating GIS into the disaster response framework has improved planning, response times, collaboration, and communication during the most challenging dynamic circumstances. Large scale disasters require extensive amounts of geospatial information regarding regions affected, infrastructure, and resource requirements. Developments in GIS have provided agencies with the ability to collaborate more efficiently and effectively. Emergency managers resolve natural disaster challenges using the Comprehensive Emergency Management (CEM) approach. CEM is broken down into four phases: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery (Agency, 1995).  


Mitigation strategies prior to natural disasters are essential to reduce loss of life and property by reducing the impact on populations both within the U.S. and abroad. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), continuously works with local governments, states, and tribes regarding hazard mitigation plans with short- and long-term focus. These efforts have the overall intent of increasing education and awareness, building partnerships for risk reduction, aligning risk reduction objectives, prioritization of efforts, and to communicate priorities (FEMA, 2020). Flood hazard mapping updates are part of the Risk Map program. This program identifies flood hazards, assesses flood risks, and provides accurate data to stakeholders and partners. These maps are dynamic and can be updated as terrain and environmental conditions change. FEMA shares this data in publicly accessible overlays powered by ArcGIS. In addition to flood mapping, overall mitigation strategies are tracked using the same technology, with 87 percent of the population currently residing in areas with approved mitigation plans (FEMA, 2020).

The FEMA Flood Map Service Center provides flood hazard information powered by GIS.


Emergency preparedness is the actions taken in advance that develop operational capabilities, enabling a more efficient, effective response to an emergency. One successful use of GIS during natural disaster preparedness is the overland surge from hurricanes also known as the “SLOSH” model, used by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)  (NOAA, 2020). SLOSH models use current wind speed, distance, and direction in combination with precipitation predictions and topography to determine possible locations at risk of flooding during a storm. These efforts are critical to evacuation planning, leading to more effective communication and decision making at all levels. NOAA provides interactive open source National Storm Surge Hazard Maps for the US, Puerto Rico / Virgin Islands, Hawaii, and Hispaniola. 

Free weekly newsletter

Fill out your e-mail address to receive our newsletter!

National Storm Surge Hazard map interface provided by NOAA.


The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), supports natural disaster response by providing subject matter experts in areas such as engineering, biology, hydrology, geology, emergency management, real estate, contracting, and geographical information systems experts. Together the USACE staff supports FEMA’s emergency support function # 3 by providing technical expertise, construction management, and reach back capabilities critical during time sensitive real-world emergencies. Geographic information systems are a key component utilized by USACE to communicate real time information in a context that can be accessed by agencies collaborating to respond to time sensitive missions. USACES employs GIS to produce sharable digital overlays with information such as hydrologic and hydraulic models, flood inundation mapping, consequences models, and data management. GIS development and coordination is not only executed at the disaster site, but globally using the Modeling, Mapping and Consequences Production Center (MMC) with SME’s across nine districts globally (Dalton, 2018). An example of this occurred during Hurricane Florence, where USAES played a critical role as part of the National Response Framework (NRF). During this major hurricane, USACE and the MMC utilized the National Weather Service (NWS) precipitation forecasts to develop flood mapping to include simulations of operational releases of water from USACE dams and impacts on levees within the threatened area (Dalton J. C., 2016). 

Crowd Sourcing Example

Natural disaster information has traditionally been obtained from National Mapping Agencies, news organizations, and emergency agencies operating in the vicinity of the event. As technology continues to connect the globe, the potential of crowdsourced geographic data has been viewed as a powerful device to supplement authoritative data, when that data is unavailable, outdated, or incomplete. During the research project, Evolution of Emergency Copernicus services (E2mC), designers developed a component termed “Witness” which enables data acquisition, analysis and storage. Emergency management has successfully used this application in numerous real-world emergencies such as the central Italy earthquake and the Haiti Hurricane of 2016 (Havas, 2017).

Example of a WebGIS interface showing geolocated social media data overlaid on the flood extent of the UK floods in 2014. Source: Havas, 2017.


The recovery phase occurs after initial relief has been provided with the goal of returning property, society, and individual livelihood back to normalized conditions. Recovery also allows government organizations and agencies the opportunity to access natural conditions, updating data and systems to represent geological changes that resulted from the natural disasters. One such technology that enables a clear concise spatial representation of the Earth’s surface is LiDAR or Light Detection and Ranging (National Ocean Service , 2020). LiDAR was used during Hurricane Sandy, one of the deadliest and most destructive hurricanes of the 2012 Atlantic hurricane season. NOAA and USGS coordination enabled the collection of high resolution topographic and bathymetric elevation data. The LiDAR data was utilized to support studies aimed at hurricane recovery and construction, annotating changes in the earth’s surface elevations due to storm surge, validate storm-surge inundation predictions, and ecological assessments. Elevation data developed by the Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013 were added to the 3DEP and developed into NOAA’s “Digital Coast”, a centralized user friendly information collection that is cost effective with high accuracy (GIS Contributor, 2017). 

Advancements in technology and the importance of utilizing geographical information systems to aid in disaster response cannot be overstated. GIS is vital to all phases of the emergency management process, leading to a faster, more concise equipped response team. GIS integration into disaster management enables higher levels of planning, analysis, situational awareness, and recovery operations. The end state is economic savings, increased collaboration and a safer population. 


Agency, U. S. (1995). National Mitigation Strategy: Partnerships for Building Safer Communities. Washington D.C. : FEMA.

Contributor, G. (2017, January 25). Three examples of goespacial innovation in emergencies. Retrieved from GIS LOUNGE:

Dalton, J. C. (2016). Flood Inundation Mapping. Washington D.C. : U.S. Army Corps of Engineers .

Dalton, S. (2018, December 07). Teamwork and Technology: Game changers for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Retrieved from DVIDS:

FEMA. (2020, February 5). Hazard Mitigation Plan Status. Retrieved from FEMS:

FEMA. (2020). Hazard Mitigation Planning. Retrieved from Federal Emergency Management Agency:

GIS Lounge. (2017, August 19). How LiDAR is being used to help with natural disaster mapping and management . Retrieved from GIS Lounge:

Havas, C. (2017). E2mC: Improving emergency management service practice through social media and crowdsourcing analysis in near real time.  Sensors. doi: 10.3390/s17122766.

National Ocean Service . (2020, February). What is LIDAR? Retrieved from National Ocean Service :

Wesley, C. (2018). Flood Indundation Mapping Cadre Process and Procedures by the USACE’s Modeling, Mapping and Consequence Production Center (MMC)U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

About the Author

Brian Sekita is an Officer in the United States Army. He is currently a graduate student in Geological Studies at Missouri University of Science and Technology.

Photo of author
About the author
GIS Contributor
Guest articles from GIS professionals. Authorship information is listed at the bottom of the articles.