When deadly tornadoes and other weather-related disasters hammered the South and Midwest this spring, many cities and counties used geographic information system (GIS) technology to accelerate emergency search and rescue and storm damage recovery. Using GIS to create specialized maps, emergency responders were better able to make sense of the ruins left behind by the storms.

On April 27, hours after a tornado struck Tuscaloosa, Ala., killing 41 people, the city's GIS Manager Jeff Motz helped firefighters and engineers use hand-held, mobile GIS devices with GPS for search and rescue and damage assessment. Using the data they collected and address grids, Motz quickly created digital maps that rescuers and others used to identify heavily damaged buildings. “With the [maps], we could determine the type of structure that was there, whether it was residential or what it was used for,” Motz says. “That helped because there were no street signs left.”

After a lethal tornado struck Joplin, Mo., on May 22, digital maps provided by the city's GIS manager were critical in helping emergency responders navigate storm-damaged neighborhoods, says Joplin's Emergency Management Director Keith Stammer. “We continually updated those maps, sometimes on a half-day basis, as we got more information,” Stammer says.

After the same storm that hit Tuscaloosa plowed through Franklin County, Ala., about 60 miles to the north, GIS maps helped water department workers find and turn off water meters to stop leaks at homes and buildings that were destroyed. The technology's usefulness following the disaster justified the $170,000 investment the county made to install its GIS in 2008, says Franklin County Engineer David Palmer. “[GIS] allows us to do so many things in terms of search and rescue, documenting the severity of the damage, [and] projecting dollar amounts for recovery,” Palmer says. “All of those things can be done in a matter of minutes just sitting at a computer.”

Gail Short is a Birmingham, Ala.-based freelance writer.