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How does the Red Cross use GIS technology?


9 - 12+


Geography, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Human Geography, Physical Geography

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When Hurricane Ike slammed into the north end of Galveston Island, Texas, on Sept. 13, 2008, thousands of residents were displaced from their homes. An estimated 2.6 million people in the U.S. states of Texas and Louisiana lost electrical power.

Luckily, the disaster-relief organization the American Red Cross was ready for the storm, which made landfallwith 177 kilometer-per-hour (110 mile-per-hour) winds, due in no small part to the emergency response organization’s use of GIS technology.

Greg Tune, the lead program manager of the geospatial technology department at the American Red Cross, says GIS has allowed the Red Cross to make more informed decisions. A geographic information system (GIS), uses an integrated network of hardwaresoftware, and data.

“GIS allows the user to add information in the form of different layers to visualize what has happened or what you are trying to depict in the form of a geographic picture,” Tune says.

For the American Red Cross, which has provided relief for those affected by disasters since its formation in 1881, that means adding vital data to maps. This data includes the path of a hurricane and the boundaries of various Red Cross chapters. Boundaries let the Red Cross know what chapters should receive emergency supplies and funds. GIS also allows the organization to highlight the locations of roads and natural features, including rivers and mountains.

Before Hurricane Ike hit the Texas coast, Tune and Jim Dooley, the American Red Cross’ senior associate for geospatial technology, were following the storm with the help of GIS technology from their offices at the American Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D.C.

“By being able to track the storm and monitor it, it helps from the planning standpoint,” Tune says. “The first thing that we are doing is we are generating these maps of the path of the storm.”

Using GIS, the Red Cross was able to determine the best area in Texas to send resources, including thousands of Red Cross workers.

“We want to get things in the right area at the right time without being in harm’s way,” Tune says.

GIS technology gave the organization the ability to make an informed decision on where to place their Hurricane Ike disaster relief operation headquarters by allowing Red Cross workers to view data on the track of the storm and compare it to the state’s highway system and the infrastructures of Texas’ major cities.

Though Houston, Texas, was only an hour northwest of where the storm was predicted to make landfall, a power outage in the city, along with a flood of displaced Galveston residents, combined to make it a poor choice for the disaster relief operation headquarters.

“Dallas kind of percolated to the top as the best likely place to stage and pre-position stuff,” Tune says.

After the decision was made to place the disaster relief operation headquarters in Dallas, Texas, the Red Cross sent trained workers to the city to talk with families about their disaster-related needs. The organization also stationed 26 emergency response vehicles filled with snack foods and water in Dallas before Hurricane Ike made landfall.

Once the storm barreled into Texas, the Red Cross used wind-profile maps, generated by GIS technology, to predict where Hurricane Ike would inflict the most damage.

Tune says that the northeast section of a storm is usually where the strongest winds are located. “What the wind profile and those types of maps help us do is to start to pinpoint areas that we might look at doing mobile-feeding [an emergency response vehicle (ERV) distributing food and water], where we might send our damage assessment teams in,” Tune says. “Because, if you got limited resources, you don’t want to be going willy-nilly. You want to try and have a good plan.”

During the Hurricane Ike disaster response, Tune and Dooley were uploading their GIS maps on internal Red Cross websites and sending reams of maps to Red Cross workers on the ground in Texas via FedEx. “It got to the point where we weren’t even keeping track of the numbers we were sending out, literally hundreds of large format [maps],” Tune says. “We were sending them down by the pound. I can’t tell you how many rolls of 100-foot paper we went through, but it was dozens.”

The American Red Cross had been using GIS for over a decade before the Hurricane Ike disaster response. Tune says the first time the American Red Cross utilized the technology on a large scale was during Northern California floods of late 1996 and early 1997. “We had flood after flood after flood in parts of Northern California,” he says. “We generated boatloads of maps.”

Since then, the American Red Cross has employed GIS in all of their major disaster relief efforts, including Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Gustav in 2008.

Tune says GIS technology’s greatest contribution to the Red Cross’ disaster relief efforts is that it allows the organization’s policymakers to view information clearly and therefore make more informed decisions.

“I think it is visualization,” he says. “It’s the old ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’ When people see words on a piece of paper, it’s hard for them to understand what that means. I think that when you can show it graphically in the form of a map, it really stands out.”

Fast Fact

Famous Founder
United States Civil War nurse Clara Barton was inspired to open the first U.S. chapter of the Red Cross in 1881. She learned about the International Red Cross Movement during a trip to Europe.

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Stuart Thornton
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 31, 2023

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