Originally published in Civil + Structural Engineer, February 2018

How municipalities prepare for natural disasters has become much more than distributing sandbags, providing emergency shelter, and assembling personnel and services to assist those in need. Although these remain vital to the response process, the coordination of preparation, assistance, and recovery has been made more efficient and effective through the application of GIS data.

Columbia County, Ga., saw the benefits of a new GIS-centric emergency response system when Hurricane Irma stormed into town in September 2017. In spring 2017, just months before the disaster struck, County Emergency Management Agency (EMA) Director Andy Leanza had the vision to develop a system of record that could be utilized for emergencies.

Mary Howard, Columbia County’s GIS department manager, said the county used software tools already at the county’s disposal to centrally manage data, immediately coordinate multiple needs, and work as a team to serve those affected by the disaster.

“The combination of using Esri’s ArcGIS platform and Cityworks for the robust asset management capabilities and activity monitoring was a no-brainer,” Howard said. “Cityworks’ capabilities allowed for other agencies to view data on a map in real time, while the software’s Storeroom proved invaluable in tracking resources between shelters, storage facilities, and deliveries.”

This image shows the Debris Removal Overview from the Columbia County field survey crews during Hurricane Irma in September 2017. The status of service requests and work orders are labeled to assist crews in efficiently addressing storm damage. Image: courtesy of Columbia County, Ga.

Eyeing the storm

Columbia County implemented its first Cityworks Asset Management System (AMS) in 2012 for its Water Utility Department. Howard said the county started small, with only 20 user accounts, but Cityworks has now been deployed to eight departments with 161 users on board.

“Improved efficiency, the ability to track work activities and costs, as well as providing a common interface for the county administration’s access to real-time events has drawn other departments toward the implementation of this technology,” Howard said.

In the first quarter of 2016, the county’s Roads and Bridges division implemented Cityworks; and an earlier implementation for Traffic Engineering and Storm Water Utility was overhauled to a completely mobile solution. Also, in early 2017, the EMA implemented Cityworks.

That timing was fortuitous. In April, after the county started its disaster preparedness plan and a few months before Hurricane Irma came to be, the region was hit by a strong line of thunderstorms that included high winds and tornadic activity. The severe weather event provided an opportunity for the county’s GIS Department and the EMA to test and refine the toolset. Howard said, due to this spring storm, improvements were made in Cityworks’ Storeroom inventory, task management, the Operations Dashboard, as well as in service request and work order monitoring.

“Esri Web Apps and ArcGIS Online (AGOL) maps were also developed for user groups based on task responsibilities,” Howard said. “AGOL was the primary platform for the centralization of 911, 311, fire rescue, and crew-based reporting of events during the storm.”

The status of work orders throughout the county is visible through this Esri Web App, documented through Cityworks and ArcGIS Online Web Maps, for clear and effective management of service requests. Image: courtesy of Columbia County, Ga.

A few months later, when Hurricane Irma started to chart its course, so did Columbia County. It was time to see if the improvements made during the spring storm were sufficient to respond to a large hurricane.

Preplanning by the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) included more than 60 personnel and processes from throughout the county, including Administration, the Sheriff’s Office, Roads and Bridges, Traffic Engineering, and Water Utility. Citizen communication tools, such as Code Red and various forms of media, also were engaged. Support groups were identified, and GIS-based systems were put into place for data input, data distribution, and post-event information reporting and distribution for each of these divisions.

The county also customized the Esri data model for Emergency Management and Public Safety to integrate with the county’s enterprise GIS platform. The ability of the Enterprise GIS to distribute the most current centralized information to multiple map and app interfaces allowed a diverse toolset to be utilized based on user responsibility.

An Operations Dashboard was set up to monitor shelter status, while Drone2Map and the countywide Cityworks AMS integration were being leveraged to pull these aspects into one system. Drone2Map for ArcGIS streamlined drone imagery for visualization and analysis in ArcGIS. A Columbia County EOC GIS Hub provided a central location for accessing the various tools, clearly defining them and making them accessible to all authorized users. The initial activation took place with mission-critical staffing, which moved into phased staffing as Irma approached. As the storm made landfall, the county was able to be fully staffed and operational.

All activity could be managed via the Operations Dashboard from incidents in the field to shelter status.

Absorbing the hit

When Hurricane Irma hit Columbia County, the team’s preparation paid off. As calls came in, they were entered as service requests and converted into work orders. Crews were then dispatched to address traffic, roads, bridges, water utility, and stormwater utility issues throughout the county. As each call was dispatched, it was classified into the active list; when the work was completed, it would move to the completed list. Information was made public regarding the status of infrastructure, roadways closed, power outages, and the status of the local shelters.

During the first 24 hours of the event, the county reported that 257 work orders were created. Each was displayed in Cityworks and AGOL Web Maps for clear and effective management. As crews identified locations and areas from call reports, these sites were checked and assessed to determine removal activities and to monitor work activities. Areas along state routes were identified for department of transportation notification.

Drone2Map software for UAS inspections proved to be a reliable tool for rapid assessment of damaged and unsafe areas with downed power lines and inaccessible roads. Imagery collected of county facilities before the storm allowed comparison with pre-flight inspections to delineate rooftop damages and identify infrastructure damage, such as wash-outs in the storm drain system.

Howard said tracking calls from notification to dispatch to resolution was key to the situational awareness in the EOC. It allowed county administrators, elected officials, 911 supervisors, and crew management staff to make appropriate decisions and allocate resources effectively.

“Departments that utilize Cityworks for their work efforts were receiving service requests directly from the EOC so they could respond in the field, attach information and photos, and close tickets as they were resolved,” Howard said. “Efficiently tracking this information was integral to capturing personnel, equipment, and material costs not only during the event, but also in documenting the county’s response and clean-up efforts during the declared state of emergency.”


Columbia County officials reported many lessons learned through this experience, which they said will continue to be fine-tuned. Adaptability, customization, and on-the-fly modification abilities were lauded by those involved, as were ease of use and functionality. These included determining 911 needs versus county administration needs, defining data, and reporting for streamlined upload to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Howard added that Esri’s Surge Licensing program for Disaster Response was invaluable to allowing additional users to collaborate in a secure environment.

“A centralized platform is key to communication; without it, duplication and inefficiencies exist,” Howard said. “This precise tracking from a reliable source like Cityworks is also critical for reimbursement documentation to FEMA.”Howard noted that this experience also helped crew members who weren’t as familiar with the system gain more confidence in its daily use.

“New departments utilizing Cityworks, such as Roads and Bridges, did not have experience using iPads for data entry before Irma,” Howard said. “Recording damage assessment information in Collector for ArcGIS was a new task for them. After a brief training and practice session, the crews canvassed the roadways of the county in zones using a Web Map. Since they were all on the same platform, they could watch other crew’s reports to reduce duplication.”

“It’s unbelievable how much quicker we were able to pick up debris and manage the workload (in Cityworks),” Columbia County Roads and Bridges Manager Tim Holloway said. “It’s a huge cost savings.”

Howard said she hopes the county can continue to update and improve its information flow, capitalizing on the trust established by the ArcGIS and Cityworks platform.

“Departments have embraced the power and functionality of centralized reporting, asset management, and the power of the dynamic and reliable mapping platform for rapid dissemination of live data,” Howard said. “Information flow and data entry also will be improved since 311 has gone live with Cityworks after the hurricane. The event was integral in the approval process for 311’s migration.”

She said the effort was successful thanks to the coordination and work of all involved.

“The passion and buy-in of the staff, coupled with the ease of use, reliability, and fast broadcasting of data allowed the technology to be successful,” Howard said. “The result was improved communication, which made for a safer and more efficient response for everyone.”

By Ryan Butler, GISP,  senior system analyst and phase manager, Woolpert


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