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Saving Lives in Central America: NASA and Partners Highlight Success of Disaster Response System During 2007 Hurricane Season
Jennifer Morcone
Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala.

Feature article: 07-131

SERVIR's recent successes were the topic of discussion at a recent meeting of collaborators in Washington. When the members of the project leadership team for a regional monitoring system sat down in Washington for a strategic planning session in August, none of them expected to be coordinating a major disaster response effort just a few hours later. That is exactly what happened as Hurricane Dean plowed through the Caribbean and closed in on the Yucatán Peninsula.

The NASA scientists have developed new techniques to aid response efforts for ecological changes and severe events in Central America such as forest fires, red tides and tropical storms and hurricanes. These techniques are the basis of SERVIR, a Spanish acronym for Regional Visualization and Monitoring System. The system is also currently being implemented in the Dominican Republic.

The SERVIR system has been created to extend the benefits of NASA Earth science information to international government partners by integrating space-based imagery and data products that offer critical information about severe events to local disaster response teams. The information enables the teams to monitor and track rainfall and storm system movements as well as determine which areas are most in need of immediate help and describe what conditions to expect when response teams arrive.

SERVIR gathers data from satellites operated by NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and other agencies. After processing, the data are combined with ground-based observations and sent to SERVIR’s Web site which is public and available to everyone. SERVIR partners include NASA, NOAA, the Water Center for the Humid Tropics of Latin America and the Caribbean (CATHALAC), the U.S. Agency for International Development, the World Bank, and the Central American Commission for Environment and Development. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center Earth Science Office in Huntsville, Ala. manages an experimentation and development facility for SERVIR at the National Space Science and Technology Center.

During a briefing in Washington on Nov. 13, the SERVIR partners highlighted the importance of coordination between U.S. agencies and internationally to respond to disaster.

"The people of Central America can take great pride in being the first in the world to implement a system in which an entire region, that’s multiple nations, work together in an integrated fashion to manage their environment for long-term sustainability,” said John C. Mather of NASA Headquarters’ Office of Chief Scientist. Mather represented NASA at the briefing.

The day before Hurricane Dean was predicted to make landfall in Central America, the government of Belize -- directly in the path of the storm -- requested assistance and information from NASA’s SERVIR project office at CATHALAC in Panama City and at the Marshall Center. The SERVIR team quickly set up a coordination center in Washington to expedite the delivery of satellite images and information from NASA, NOAA and other agencies around the world to the Central American governments preparing for Dean's landfall. The hurricane hit in the early hours of Aug. 21 -- the first Category 5 hurricane to make landfall in the Americas since 1992. It was expected to produce massive damage and destruction. A Category 5 hurricane is the highest rank on the Saffir-Simpson scale, which is based on wind speed and destructive potential.

"When we saw Hurricane Dean's strength and projected path we were all aware of how much damage it had the potential to inflict," said Dan Irwin, NASA’s SERVIR project director. "Most of our team was in Washington at the planning session and we only had a skeleton crew on the ground in Panama," said Irwin. "But the team all dug in and worked together, long-distance, and we were able to get the information and imagery into the hands of the disaster response teams."

The SERVIR team pulled relevant information from NASA centers and contacted NOAA to acquire additional images and information. The team in Panama also was responsible for coordinating critical satellite information around the globe, under the United Nations Charter for Space and Major Disasters. By the time Dean hit the coast of the Yucatán Peninsula, NASA scientists and the SERVIR team already had gathered satellite data to identify which population centers could expect excessive rainfall and flooding. Within one hour of the storm's landfall, the team had launched a centralized information Web page, providing the countries’ disaster response and environmental agencies with the information they needed to respond as Dean moved across the region.

Irwin and the SERVIR team also coordinated satellite information for response efforts in the wake of Hurricane Felix, which made landfall Sept. 4 along the Nicaraguan coast, just south of its border with Honduras. The mountainous terrain in Felix’s path heightened the threat of flooding in the region. Through careful evaluation of the hurricane's path, rainfall data and maps of past flooding, the SERVIR team was able to identify areas most prone to storm-related flooding, aiding local government officials in their response efforts.

The Mesoamerican region has been especially affected this season with both Dean and Felix making landfall in the Americas as Category 5 storms. It was the first time two Category 5 storms made landfall in the Atlantic Basin in the same hurricane season since official recordkeeping began in 1871. It is also the first time in recorded history that the first two hurricanes of the Atlantic season reached Category 5 strength. Heavy rainfall and winds in excess of 160 mph have caused extensive flooding, mudslides and property damage throughout the region and at least 175 deaths have been linked to these two hurricanes.

Today, the SERVIR team continues to play a vital role in response efforts by incorporating data from satellites so that emergency management officials from the region can prepare population areas for future storm damage, mitigate additional dangers such as flooding and disease and initiate rebuilding efforts by providing agricultural damage analysis and environmental change analysis, both of which are key elements of the infrastructure rebuilding.

For more images related to Hurricane Dean in the Yucatan Peninsula, please visit:

For more images related to Hurricane Felix, please visit:

For more information about SERVIR, please visit:

> Photos

Daniel Kanigan
NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center