A geographic information system (GIS) is a system designed to capture, store, manipulate, analyze, manage, and present spatial or geographic data. FEMA’s Office of Response and Recovery is home to a GIS team that utilizes a variety of imagery and georeferenced data in mapping the impacts of natural and man-made disasters. FEMA obtains synthetic aperture radar (SAR) geospatial imagery from foreign partners to supplement U.S. capabilities. SAR radar can be used to generate maps of regions under nighttime or overcast conditions and is especially useful in flood response.

During the responses to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria, SAR imagery obtained from European partners enhanced FEMA’s ability to direct life-saving assets to survivors. This imagery allowed FEMA to deploy swift water search and rescue teams to survivors in urgent need of rescue from flooding in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The imagery also allowed FEMA to accurately measure the depth of flood waters, enabling FEMA to expedite rental assistance funds to survivors whose homes were flooded with more than four feet of water. After Hurricane Maria, European-provided SAR imagery allowed FEMA to immediately qualify 11,000 households in Puerto Rico for a total of $17 million in rental assistance.

By working directly with partners in the European Commission, the European Union’s independent executive arm, FEMA can efficiently access much-needed SAR data. In addition to FEMA’s longstanding partnership with DG ECHO, the European Commission’s civil protection and humanitarian assistance directorate-general, in 2015 the U.S. government signed an arrangement for sharing satellite data with DG GROW, the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and Small & Medium Enterprises.  This newer arrangement, the “Cooperation Arrangement between the United States and the European Commission on Cooperation on Earth Observation Data Related to the Copernicus Program,” provides mechanisms for data exchanges between U.S. and European agencies such as NASA, NOAA, USGS, the European Space Agency and EUMETSAT, a European satellite agency.  

Thanks to these two mechanisms, FEMA’s GIS team continues to have timely access to European SAR imagery, eliminating the delays often associated with international data sharing mechanisms. The SAR data streams have greatly enhanced FEMA’s ability to accurately map disasters, and have been used heavily during the current 2017 Atlantic Hurricane season. Moreover, the recent four European Copernicus satellite network activations over the United States have been cost-free to U.S. taxpayers. The U.S. Government is grateful to the European Commission for this invaluable and tangible contribution to FEMA’s efforts.

Written by: Jess Bratton