Mapping It All Out: FEMA’s GIS Program Has Positive Impact On Moss Point Recovery

By FEMA Staff

Ed. note: This article originally appeared on FEMA's website on June 23.

When the average person thinks of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and its role in the recovery of a community after a disaster, images of the initial response usually come to mind; a man in a FEMA shirt sitting at a table signing residents up for disaster assistance, an assembly line of workers unloading bottles of water from a truck and handing them to waiting disaster victims or, perhaps, a FEMA official joining local, state and national leaders on a tour of the disaster area.

The aforementioned imagery provides a relatively narrow perspective of FEMA's functions and responsibilities. Many of the agency's recovery operations and programs often go unnoticed by the public.

A great example of the lesser known roles of FEMA's assistance comes through the GIS program. In simple terms, GIS uses cutting-edge technology to aid recovering communities by providing the means to gather, analyze and utilize a broad spectrum of data - from topography to political and governmental boundaries as well as population and demographics. The information provided by GIS serves to help communities in many different aspects of recovery and community planning in the wake of a disaster.

GIS works with local governmental and non-profit entities as well as the Governor's Office of Recovery and Renewal at the request of FEMA's Long Term Community Recovery (LTCR).

"GIS analysis capabilities are a part of the technical assistance package LTCR provides to local governments, the state and non-profit community rebuilding partners," said Bob Haywood, Section Chief for LTCR at FEMA's Mississippi Transitional Recovery Office (MS TRO).

Moss Point is one south Mississippi city taking full advantage of the GIS program as it recovers from Hurricane Katrina. "We decided to maximize the opportunities brought on by this devastating event," said Moss Point Mayor Xavier Bishop. "FEMA has been a partner with us in taking advantage of this opportunity."

Moss Point faced many challenges prior to Hurricane Katrina. The closing of local industries cut jobs resulting in population decline, a smaller work force and, ultimately, a decrease in tax revenue. But as the flood waters receded after the storm, the city's challenges grew even greater.

"Moss Point is an idyllic community that's a wonderful place to live, work and play," said Bishop. "FEMA's GIS program offers us another tool to fulfill our dream for a promising future."

Under the leadership of the mayor, Moss Point is facing its challenges by focusing on new and improved housing and promotion of the business district through downtown development and the creation of a riverfront district. The goal is to increase the city's tax base by attracting new industry, commercial development and, most importantly, a thriving, diverse population.

The Moss Point Housing Task Force is charged with identifying solutions to meet the housing needs of the city. The task force has formed a Data Collection & Assessment Committee to perform a study to determine housing needs. Dan Allen, GIS Unit Lead at the MS TRO, has been working with the committee.

"The committee's goal is to increase Moss Point's tax base through residential developments in run-down areas with derelict housing," said Allen. "We can help them by providing the technology to develop a strategy for improving Moss Point's housing which is one of the major challenges facing the city in the midst of its recovery process."

The transfer of technology may be the single-most important aspect of GIS involvement in the Moss Point recovery process. FEMA's GIS team in Mississippi has compiled a massive amount of geographic and statistical data as they perform their role in the mission of the MS TRO.

All of the technology and data compiled is eventually handed over to the communities to utilize and implement on their own. By digitizing many of the older, paper maps used by the city, the benefits of GIS will continue to be realized long after FEMA has completed its mission and left Mississippi.

A Housing Geographic Information System currently being created by GIS is one example. "We are able to incorporate layers for streets, corporate boundaries, wards, zoning districts, Digital Flood Insurance Rate Maps, wetland areas and elevation contours," said Allen. "With this information system, the city of Moss Point will be able to conduct their own housing assessment."

The housing assessment will identify derelict and abandoned properties and other impediments and challenges to the improved housing strategy. Through the development of a map book of Moss Point, GIS is able to identify undeveloped land owned by the city. The maps also identify parcels of land with residential developments that have shown a 50 percent or greater decrease in value in recent assessments and properties that have been abandoned or destroyed. The book will include a color coding system and corresponding table that identifies and targets potential properties for the development of affordable housing.

"Once we pass this information on to the city, they will be able to maintain the system by populating it with new data as it becomes available," added Allen.

In developing its housing plan, Moss Point will take the GIS map book, consider input from residents and then overlay the information with SmartCode. SmartCode is a land development ordinance template for urban planning aimed at providing smart growth as an alternative to urban sprawl. It can be calibrated to meet an individual community's specific needs.

In addition to developing housing, Moss Point has an ambitious plan to promote its business district through the redevelopment of the downtown area.

Comprised of five key components, the downtown development plan includes: mixed-used properties, pedestrian friendly aspects including improved sidewalks, parking, landscaping and a traditional, narrow "Main Street", an expanded riverfront park to host community events, measures for minimal environmental impact including Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification for all new municipal buildings and the use of SmartCode to encourage building designs that support a safe and attractive public environment.

"Our goal is to make downtown a destination, a place where people gravitate toward," said Mayor Bishop.

In order to fulfill this goal, the city is using GIS maps as a template. These maps include information vital to the successful implementation of the city's development plan. Data such as household income, age and other demographical factors is being used for current and future growth.

"The information we are able to glean from these maps is incredibly helpful," said Daphne Viverette, Moss Point Community Development Administrator. "Thanks to Dan and the GIS program at FEMA, we'll be able to utilize these maps long after they (FEMA) are gone."

The use of GIS does not stop with affordable housing and downtown development, however. "We're planning on using the same principles of development from downtown to spawn growth and development throughout the city," said Bishop.

Those plans include the addition of parks, new sidewalks and bike paths, streetscapes and an increase in security.

GIS is playing a key role in helping Moss Point reach these goals. For instance, to help determine the appropriate placement of city ball parks, they are calculating the youth population as it relates to travel times and distances from the parks. Likewise, they are calculating the senior population in relation to travel times and distances to community senior centers.

Housing and zoning, though, remain the two most crucial elements in which Moss Point is utilizing GIS to successfully execute the overall recovery plan.

"It all comes back to housing and zoning," said Barbara Smith, FEMA Long Term Community Recovery (LTCR) Manager. "Those are the keys to a successful overall recovery plan here in Moss Point. And, it wouldn't be possible without the help of GIS."

No one can predict when the next hurricane will hit Moss Point, Mississippi. It should be, however, safe to say this community will be much better prepared both before and after the next storm. "Katrina was our wake-up call," said Bishop. "And, we are answering."

FEMA coordinates the federal government's role in preparing for, preventing, mitigating the effects of, responding to, and recovering from all domestic disasters, whether natural or man-made, including acts of terror.

Published Tuesday, July 1st, 2008

Written by FEMA Staff

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