Purdue project for FEMA producing a flood of flood maps

  • August 13, 2008
  • Science Highlights

Classify Kaiem Frink as a first-shift worker in a flood factory running on Purdue University’s campus this summer.

Frink and the rest of the student work force, two shifts of them a day and one on weekends, aren’t actually filling the labs they occupy in the Agricultural and Biological Engineering building with water, of course.

The floods they’re producing are on maps of 100-year flood plains in more than 700 U.S. counties, not old-fashioned maps on paper but in a computer as part of a sophisticated Geographic Information System for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

Frink, as he watches blue stream reaches render on screen over a brown and green map of a Minnesota county, talks about it in Zen-like terms. “It’s a team project,” said the computer science graduate of Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, who’s at Purdue this summer, co-sponsored by Information Technology at Purdue (ITaP) and the NASA-funded Indiana Space Grant Consortium, in an internship program to encourage him to go on to graduate school. “You have some individuals you can converse with, bounce ideas off them. The day goes fast. It’s peaceful. At least it is to me.”

Nonetheless, the job is a big one and Purdue is doing the biggest part of it.

FEMA wants to create a set of standardized “apples-to-apples” 100-year flood analyses for all the non-coastal counties in the U.S.

The federal emergency agency enlisted the Polis Center at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis in the effort because of its expertise in using FEMA’s HAZUS-MH tool. HAZUS-MH is a GIS-based software application used to conduct scientifically grounded loss estimations from natural hazards such as floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes.

“It significantly exceeded our capacity,” Polis Center Associate Director Dave Coats said of the FEMA flood-mapping project.

But the Polis Center already works with Purdue and other universities in Indiana to assist local governments in employing GIS technology. The center was able to enlist the universities for the FEMA project as well. The Purdue Terrestrial Observatory, part of Purdue’s Rosen Center for Advanced Computing and ITaP, and the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering are spearheading the effort at Purdue.

“We completed Indiana four years ago with a separate grant,” said John Buechler, the Polis Center’s GIS manager. FEMA has about 10 states done overall and is gunning to finish the rest by September.

Purdue started with 300 counties. FEMA recently extended its contract to take in 485 more. Besides Minnesota, the list includes counties in Alabama, Arizona, California, Georgia, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. “We did all the big ones early in the process,” said Larry Theller, GIS specialist for the Purdue Agricultural and Biological Engineering Department. “We told them we could have 25 computers and that made us the biggest player.”

“This is a very large job that needed to be done in a short period of time,” said Purdue Professor Bernie Engel, who chairs the department and is the co-principal investigator on the FEMA project.

In a bit of kismet, Engel’s department, set to replace its computer labs in the fall, had a collection of new machines sitting idle over the summer.

Purdue also had a collection of more than a dozen staff members and students from the Agricultural and Biological Engineering Department, the Purdue Terrestrial Observatory and elsewhere ready for training sessions put on by the Polis Center to teach them to run a basic HAZUS-MH analysis. The 17-step process includes monitoring the software as it downloads and processes state geographic and flooding data, cleaning up variances between states and other data problems, and annotating the resulting map, in addition to dealing with the occasional software glitch.

“Some counties can be done in four hours, we’ve had some take two weeks,” said Larry Biehl, systems manager for the Purdue Terrestrial Observatory, who’s put in long hours as one of the staff members overseeing the FEMA project.

An international collection of student workers–from climatology, agricultural and biological engineering, civil engineering, urban planning, and other fields–works two shifts and on weekends to meet the FEMA deadline, said ITaP’s Associate Vice President for Collaborative Research Gilbert Rochon, director of the Terrestrial Observatory and co-principal investigator on the FEMA project.

HAZUS-MH is more than just a map, even a digital map. It epitomizes the idea of a Geographic Information System. For example, it incorporates data down to the census block level, allowing projections of everything from the number of displaced people and their ethnicity to the likely damage to buildings and the economic loss as a result of, in this case, a major flood.

In fact, the Polis Center and its partners are using the system to help a number of Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin counties get ahead of the game by fashioning pre-disaster mitigation plans, which FEMA wants every county to do.

The center’s partnership with Purdue is developing both research and international angles as well.

Biehl and colleagues at the Purdue Terrestrial Observatory are providing the satellite imagery that is the stock-in-trade of the facility to study the calculating of flood boundaries from the images based on this summer’s flooding in Indiana and around the Midwest. The plan is to compare that to on-the-spot field reports and see if such images can be employed in an enhanced GIS, Buechler said.

“Certainly, this has been a very timely issue with the floods the last few weeks,” Engel said.

Purdue researchers already have overlaid the flood images onto 2007 U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service data to generate an estimate, 15 percent, of the corn and soybean crop submerged in Indiana’s flooded counties. Rochon presented the research at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers International Geoscience and Remote Sensing Symposium in Boston July 6-11.

Rochon said the partners also are looking at the possibility of doing flood mapping for the Nile River in Africa, particularly in Egypt, the Sudan and Ethiopia.

The Nile project could produce volumes of data such that it would take Rosen Center high performance computing resources like the new Steele cluster, with 812 dual quad-core compute nodes and a peak performance of 60 teraflops, the new low-power SiCortex supercomputer, or Purdue’s 14,000-processor Condor distributed computing pool to analyze the mass, Rochon said.

Buechler said bringing high performance computing into play also might allow the incorporation of real-time stream flow data and what-if modeling of floods.

Biehl said high performance computing could permit the kind of dynamic flood modeling FEMA would really like to do, incorporating rain data as it happens, for instance, and taking into account highly localized variances in rainfall within a county to quickly and accurately predict impacts downstream. The 100-year flood plain project is somewhat static by contrast, he said, providing in effect a snapshot of flooding in a worst-case scenario with an extraordinary rain countywide.

Originally posted: August 13, 2008