Since 1900, more than three dozen major hurricanes have hammered the Gulf Coast from Texas to the Florida Panhandle.  Located in the middle of this troublesome zone is Gulfport, Mississippi.  The 64-square-mile city, bordered on the south by seven miles of Gulf Coast, was severely damaged in 1969 by Hurricane Camille and, most recently, in 2005, by Hurricane Katrina.  While Camille was considered the benchmark for destructive hurricanes in Gulfport, Katrina became the new standard.

Hurricane Katrina hit Gulfport on Monday morning, August 29, 2005, with winds of up to 150 mph and storm surge levels up to 30 feet high.  Nearly all structures within half a mile of the coastline were destroyed and downtown streets were underwater. The surge forced ships, casino barges, large dredging barges, and shipping containers inland, knocking down buildings and houses like a bowling ball knocks down pins.

A railroad line on an elevated berm, roughly a half mile inland and parallel to the coastline, became a levee for the storm surge and its dangerous drifting debris.  Because of this elevated berm, damage north of the railroad tracks was significantly less, but still catastrophic due to the high winds, multiple tornadoes, and torrential rain.  Katrina hammered the Mississippi coastline for more than 17 hours, leaving Gulfport and its neighboring Gulf Coast cities in utter destruction.  Some five years later, cleanup and rebuilding efforts are still underway.

A City under Surge
Being prepared for a natural disaster the size of a category-5 hurricane may sound like a paradox but, from an information services standpoint, Gulfport’s Public Works Department was as prepared as possible.  The lengthy infrastructure recovery process following the storm was expedited by the City’s GIS-centric asset work management system.  The system helped mitigate damages by generating crucial utility and street maps, locating assets under piles of debris more than 10 feet high, and serving as a geospatial damage report depository.  The latter was instrumental in gaining federal assistance and aid from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Gulfport’s Public Works Department actually became more prepared for such a storm in 2002.  In an effort to improve its asset work management system, the City implemented Azteca System’s Cityworks software and supported it with ESRI’s ArcGIS technology.  Cityworks is a GIS-centric software program used by public works, utilities, and other organizations tasked with managing capital assets and infrastructure.  Utilizing the data stored in a GIS geodatabase, Cityworks gave Gulfport tools to manage its public works infrastructure.  With Cityworks in place, Gulfport began handling requests for service, conflict resolution, work orders, tests, and inspections in a GIS environment.  The City and its 30,000 customers enjoyed the reliability and efficiency of the system, but no one could predict just how valuable their investment would turn out to be until after Hurricane Katrina had passed.

“When Katrina hit, it destroyed our infrastructure—water, sewer, storm drain—for about three to four blocks inland, all along our beachfront,” says Ron Smith, Gulfport’s assistant director of Public Works.  “Almost everything south of the railroad tracks to the beach was destroyed.  All the utilities that linked to all the businesses and homes in that area were completely wiped out.  The storm wiped it all off the map, but it didn’t wipe it off our Cityworks.”

As soon as it was humanly possible, the City had people in the field repairing the severely damaged water and sewerage systems.  The recovery effort began in the middle of the storm and went around the clock amid chaos as workers labored to plug and cap holes and shut off valves to keep Gulfport’s water tanks from completely draining.  Many of the damaged lines were underwater or beneath rubble and debris, making their exact location difficult to pinpoint and access.  The City’s normal water pressure, 60 psi, was down as low as 25 psi for a week after the storm hit landfall.  In addition to its water system, debris had clogged and crippled the City’s storm drain and sewerage system, which only intensified the flooding problem.  “You couldn’t have packed concrete into our storm drains any tighter,” claims Smith.
GIS to the Rescue
Five days after the storm had passed, the Cityworks server, which had been taken offline and stored in a secure area as Katrina approached, was back up and running.  “We immediately started entering and documenting all the waterline breaks, plugs, and caps into Cityworks,” states Smith.  “We were also very busy tracking, mapping, and documenting the damage done after the storm.”

Not all the destruction in Gulfport was done by Katrina.  Before Cityworks was back online, the City was unable to provide cleanup crews and contractors with accurate locations of its assets.  This became a big problem because contractors were frequently destroying waterlines, valves, gas meters, and fire hydrants with the bulldozers and excavators used for the cleanup effort.  Each time a waterline or fire hydrant was broken, water pressure would once again drop and Public Works crews would be dispatched to make the necessary repairs.  The problem quickly subsided when the City was able to provide contractors with maps that clearly indicated the locations of fire hydrants, valves, and waterlines.

Crews worked around the clock and within a week of the storm, most of Gulfport’s major roads were cleared and water pressure was restored to 90% of the city.  The other 10% of the City’s water distribution system was damaged beyond repair.  By the third week, the Public Works Department was able to lift the “boil water” notice and by the fourth week, the sewer system and traffic signals were restored to working order.  As cleanup and rebuilding progressed, it was determined that nearly 15,000 traffic signs needed to be replaced.  The GIS functionality of Cityworks helped Public Works justify sign replacement by identifying the attributes and original locations of the destroyed signs.

Replacing traffic signs was a small task compared to the estimated 3 million cubic yards of debris that needed clearing from Gulfport’s coastal area and the 50 miles of water, sewer, and drainage pipe that needed to be replaced.  Early on, EPA sent representatives to Gulfport to assist with environmental issues.  Seven months into the recovery process, EPA brought in a team to analyze the entire impact the storm had on the City’s Public Works infrastructure.

“We used Cityworks to show the EPA all the areas in our lines that were destroyed and had water leaks and damage, and where they had been fixed or needed repairs,” explains Smith.  “When we looked at all the points on the map, it looked like a shotgun blast.  From our GIS maps, the EPA [representatives] determined that there was no way we could just repair it.  They recommended that we replace all our lines near the beach.”

Cityworks map-based interface provided EPA with a highly detailed geospatial platform for visualizing the entire scope of damages.  From the City’s analysis, EPA made a recommendation to FEMA that Gulfport receive the funding to rebuild its water, sewer, and storm drain infrastructure near its coast.  Such a project also required new sidewalks, curb and gutter, and asphalt roadwork.  With EPA’s recommendation, FEMA approved the multiyear project at an estimated overall cost of more than $100 million.  “The EPA came in and, using our maps, communicated with FEMA to get the issue handled,” recalls Smith.

Cityworks was instrumental in the City achieving a facade grant which allowed businesses to restore and beautify their storefront, revitalizing the downtown area.  The mapping functionality in its GIS was used to generate lists and identify the addresses that fell in the flooded areas.

As recovery and reconstruction nears completion, Cityworks is still paying off.  ”The destruction of Katrina is long gone and at the City of Gulfport, we’ve been very busy the past four and a half years rebuilding our city and it’s coming back bigger and better than before,” reports Smith.  “For our needs in Public Works, we’re able to track all this new infrastructure going in along the coast with Cityworks—know what we’ve got, know where it’s at, and what we need to do to keep it up.”

By Ron Smith, Public Works Assistant Director, City of Gulfport, and Matt Freeman, ESRI

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