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Diving Deeper: After the Storm - Collecting Aerial Imagery

Episode 52 (September 26, 2013)

HOST: Have you heard the expression - a picture is worth a thousand words? Well, this is especially true following a coastal storm. Images collected immediately after a storm can document the level of disaster for a community and can help to outline the steps for recovery.

Today on Diving Deeper, we're going to talk with one of the NOAA pilots who responds after a coastal storm to collect aerial imagery of the damage that was done. Now, I'll welcome Commander Albert Girimonte to our show. Commander Girimonte is the deputy chief of the National Geodetic Survey's Remote Sensing Division. Hi Commander Girimonte, welcome to our show.

COMMANDER ALBERT GIRIMONTE: Hi Kate, thanks for having me here, it's my pleasure.

HOST: So Al, if I may if that's okay, Al, to start off, there's several offices across NOAA that are responsible for responding after a coastal storm has struck an area. For your office specifically, the National Geodetic Survey, one of your roles is to collect aerial imagery of the damage following a storm, is that correct?

COMMANDER ALBERT GIRIMONTE: That's correct. In addition to conducting the Coastal Mapping Program and the Aeronautical Survey Program, we also conduct this mission which we refer to as the emergency response mission. This essentially entails collecting georeferenced aerial imagery when there's an event of significance in which NOAA's missions or interests are affected. Now, that could be a storm, other natural disaster or other man-made disaster. So in the case of a coastal storm we conduct aerial surveys to assess potential or actual impacts to NOAA navigation interests in order to protect life, property, and to ensure the safety of maritime commerce. What adds value to the collection of the imagery is that we process it and rapidly distribute the data.

HOST: Fantastic, and how long have you been personally flying these missions?

COMMANDER ALBERT GIRIMONTE: I've been a pilot for about 18 years, the first 11 which were in the Navy and the last seven or so have been with NOAA.

HOST: Can you walk us through maybe a little bit of your experience - what's it like to collect this imagery. Just helping us visualize this. What can you tell us first about the planes that you use to fly these surveys?

COMMANDER ALBERT GIRIMONTE: The aircraft we use primarily is a Beechcraft Super King Air. It's the newest one that we have in the fleet. It was acquired back in 2008. It's a twin engine turbo prop. It has a range of about 2,400 nautical miles and a maximum endurance of about eight hours or so. It's not a particularly large aircraft. It's only as long as maybe two cars parked end to end. It's a pretty popular model, but NOAA's model has been modified in order to perform this and other missions for the agency. Specifically, it has long-range fuel tanks, it has a more robust electrical system to power mission equipment. It has observation windows in the back, and most importantly it has two large ports or holes cut into the belly of the aircraft - they're about the size of two pizza boxes I guess - and that's the most important because that's where we mount our sensors and our camera equipment to look down and to photograph the imagery below.

Occasionally we'll use another aircraft, say if the primary aircraft is in maintenance or if it's such a large response that we need two aircraft to rapidly gather all the data and that would also be a NOAA aircraft, it's a NOAA Twin Otter. It has similar mission capabilities and size, but it's not as fast and it doesn't have quite as much range as the King Air.

Now, what it's like to actually respond to such an event, our office maintains a database of some pre-planned survey lines throughout the United States. It's pretty much along the coastal areas and along territories of the United States. So, when there's an event in which we need to respond to, we'll have numerous internal and external coordination calls and then we'll take a look at those survey lines and modify them as needed. Once we determine the appropriate areas to respond to, we'll send that message to the air crews out in the field, they'll pick an airfield, generally within 100 miles or so of the damaged area to operate out of, they'll get there, they'll set up a GPS base station, and then they'll start conducting flights, generally around two flights a day for approximately four hours in duration each.

HOST: Al, how many people are on the plane at a time to do this image collection? I know you said the plane's about the size of two cars, two parked cars, so I'm not sure how many folks you can fit in there to get all this work done.

COMMANDER ALBERT GIRIMONTE: Believe it or not, we only three to do the mission we need to do. We have a pilot and a co-pilot and someone in the back we call the sensor operator that flies along with us and they operate all the remote sensing equipment that captures all this data. The primary instrument is an aerial mapping camera, it's a high-performance digital camera that has a 60mm lens and it collects color and near infrared images. Now those are primarily black and white but they're near infrared. And it has 39 megapixels of resolution.

We also use a LIDAR, which is an acronym for light detection and ranging. And it uses an invisible, eye-safe laser that scans the surface below to create what we call point cloud image. The added benefit of a point cloud image over just a visible image is that the point cloud image provides horizontal information, much like a photograph would, but it also provides vertical or height information, so it kind of gives us a 3D image of the area below. We don't use it as much as the camera itself because most people are interested in the actual photograph vs. the LIDAR imagery.

HOST: So Al, how soon after a storm can you actually go out and conduct these overflights?

COMMANDER ALBERT GIRIMONTE: Crews generally get out into the survey area within 24 hours of the storm, however weather is pretty much the limiting factor in this response time. So really more specifically it's the cloud heights and the visibility. For us, the ideal survey altitudes are about 10,000 feet above the ground. We can go higher, but higher altitudes result in resolution degradation. Conversely, if the clouds force us to operate the aircraft lower, the amount of area covered by each image will be smaller and this requires additional survey lines and a whole bunch of extra data for our technicians to capture and process and it adds a great deal of workload. So again, 10,000 feet is the ideal altitude, but if we really can't get into 10,000 feet and we're starting to feel the urgency, we'll try to get in there at least at 3,000 feet. Anything below that is really just not practical for us to operate in.

HOST: Have you ever conducted flights during a storm, say during a hurricane?

COMMANDER ALBERT GIRIMONTE: So storms generally bring clouds and rain and low visibility so those aren't exactly ideal conditions for collecting imagery so no I haven't conducted these missions during the storm, but I also fly the hurricane hunting aircraft. So I've had the unique opportunity to get up close and personal with not only the storm itself, but the aftermath of the storm too.

HOST: Must have been quite interesting as a hurricane hunter then I'm sure, or still doing that work.

COMMANDER ALBERT GIRIMONTE: It is. It's a very rewarding mission and believe it or not, it's not as bad as people think it is. It's still a very rewarding mission to conduct.

HOST: We focused a lot of our answers right now on collecting aerial imagery after coastal storms, specifically after something like a hurricane may have struck an area. But are there other times you would go out and collect this imagery?

COMMANDER ALBERT GIRIMONTE: Well, coastal storms generally encompass the bulk of the work that we do because it's directly related to our mission to survey the coast. However, we've flown for events inland where there's a NOAA interest or mission at stake. Some examples of this kind of work that we've done in the past include river floods in the Midwest or along the Mississippi which assist with the NWS River Forecast Center and the Deepwater Horizon spill that assists the Office of Response and Restoration.

For other inland events of national interest, we'll work closely with federal agencies like FEMA and we make them aware of the capabilities that we have, so if we think that they can potentially assist in carrying out their mission. If our services are requested, then they'll initiate a formal request via official channels. Some examples of these type of events include September 11, the Joplin, Missouri tornadoes and also the Birmingham and Tuscaloosa or Alabama tornadoes in 2011.

HOST: Al, so after a flight is completed, is the data ready to be used right away? You talked a little bit about some processing and getting that stuff up. I guess how long, what is that delay time to do that work?

COMMANDER ALBERT GIRIMONTE: Well, the image that the plane captures is essentially a JPG image, similar to what you would get on your own personal digital cameras, so that is obviously not a final data. So what we do, there is a post-processing step in which the images come off the airplane and then we apply GPS and what's called inertial measurement unit data which basically geo-rectifies the image.

And then after that those images are all stitched together to create a mosaic of the area. And that entire process from the time the image comes off the airplane to the time that it's ready to be posted is anywhere around six hours or so - it's been less at times, sometimes it's been more, it just really depends, but we try to maintain six hours or less from the time we get the image off the airplane.

HOST: Fantastic. And who uses the storm imagery and what do they typically tend to use it for?

COMMANDER ALBERT GIRIMONTE: A wide range of stakeholders in federal, state, and local government, mostly emergency managers and decision makers use it, they assess the overall damage and determine if there's an ongoing threat to life and property. This helps them to determine where to focus their response and recovery efforts and that primarily happens immediately after the event. In months to years even to follow, some coastal zone managers and community planners will use it to help develop more resilient coastal communities that are better able to deal with similar events that may occur in the future.

But probably one of the most personally rewarding uses of the data is by just the general public, you and me. We are able to go to the website, download the images and assess damage to public and private properties around. And this is especially beneficial to them if they're unable to return. If local authorities have closed off the area. It helps them plan their own personal recovery and helps them seek a return to normalcy.

HOST: I can see that it would definitely be, just so valuable for that audience. How is the imagery distributed to the folks who need to access it? Is it mainly just through the website?

COMMANDER ALBERT GIRIMONTE: Primarily, the imagery is available through an interactive web map that can be accessed through a desktop or even a mobile device. We also generate a web map tile service, what's called a WMTS, that more for the GIS community and it allows the data to be viewed in most popular GIS software. Imagery again is available again in six hours in all of these formats. The web address is pretty long, but if type in "NGS storms" into any search engine, the home page will be one of the first listed.

HOST: OK great. So Al, you've really painted a picture for us of all of the different kinds of surveys that you've done and I'm sure that these probably stand apart in some way in your mind from each other as you just have this remarkable view from your airplane of the damage and devastation that you encounter. Can you tell us maybe a little bit about one or two of the more remarkable in some way, maybe memorable's not quite the right word, but what can you tell us about this experience that's really just left a mark on you?

COMMANDER ALBERT GIRIMONTE: Probably the first one that was most memorable for me was the tornadoes that I mentioned in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa in the spring of 2011. That was the first time I had seen such a large scale devastation in the United States, up close and personal vs. seeing it on the news and reading about it. It was just a real eye-opening site when viewed from the aircraft. The path of the storm was just so clearly visible, practically connecting the two cities from Birmingham all the way down to Tuscaloosa.

And it was spring time so there was a lot of green vegetation all around the surrounding areas and in the area where the storm's path was, it just seemed as though the storm had just sucked the color right out of the Earth, there was just nothing but brown and it was just a sight to see. And there was just debris field on either side and it was almost two miles at certain points connecting the two cities again about 50 miles apart. So for me, that was just pretty humbling to see.

The next one I would probably say is Sandy. So the reason why it's more memorable for me is because I had grown up in that area, so it was a little more personal because I could relate to the people and places that I was seeing on the ground. I was especially shocked by how quickly the transition was between the areas that sustained the brunt of the storm vs. those that were just a few miles away. And this was most evident along the Jersey Shore obviously where Atlantic City had fared pretty well in the storm, but only a few miles north there was just complete devastation in the Seaside Heights community. One of the things probably, the image that will last in most Americans and my mind as well is the one of the amusement park in Seaside Heights. Just seeing the roller coaster there and just gobbled up by the ocean essentially. I remember seeing it first hand and I was quite shocked by it and then there was just the massive devastation to the surrounding homes and businesses. It just really looked like a war zone - just wreckage, debris, uncontrolled fires everywhere. I'd never seen anything like it in the United States.

HOST: Thanks Al for sharing a little bit about that experience for us, I can only imagine how difficult it is to also view it that way. On a more personal note here as we transition just a little bit, I wanted to talk about your position with the NOAA Corps. As we mentioned you're here and you're speaking for the Office of National Geodetic Survey, but you're also part of NOAA's Corps and wanted to ask you a little bit about what made you want to join the NOAA Corps and what can you say to those of our listeners that may also be interested in something like this?

COMMANDER ALBERT GIRIMONTE: Well, I have a science degree so obviously that's what the NOAA Corps prides itself in is being the science agency or the science uniformed service so I was attracted to that aspect of the mission as well as the opportunity to continue to serve my country as a uniformed officer, I started off, like I said, previously in the Navy. But my service in the Navy could best be described as a sustainment of a state of readiness through rigorous training and in between those training periods, there was real-world operational missions. I enjoyed that culture and that mission, but eventually I felt it was time to move on. I wanted to do something else.

So in the NOAA Corps, we also train and sustain that readiness that I talked about but we also conduct real-world operations, pretty much we sustain real-world operations all the time too so the training and the readiness are overlapped with real-world operations so the opportunity to perform operational missions on almost a day-to-day basis, combined with the science aspect of the mission is really what convinced me to pursue a career in the NOAA Corps. Well, it certainly helps that the pay and benefits and travel are all great. If this appeals to anybody out there, I would encourage them to contact the NOAA Corps recruiter and visit the NOAA Corps website and get more information.

HOST: And now just to close out this episode, just my last question here for you today, I wanted to see if you had any closing words to leave our listeners with?

COMMANDER ALBERT GIRIMONTE: I just really appreciate you having me here today Kate to talk about this extremely valuable mission that we conduct and also about the NOAA Corps. It's been my pleasure and I really encourage your listeners to view the NGS Storms website to take a look at some of the imagery that we've collected, play around with some of the features and tools. We have imagery that dates back to coastal storms all the way back to Hurricane Isabel in 2003. So I really encourage the folks to kind of get a look at it. One of the things that we didn't touch on before that I'll bring up now is not only do you get to see some of the damage imagery from the storms again I mentioned going back to 2003, you can actually, there's a feature on the website that allows you to see the before imagery so you really get to assess the impact that whatever storm had to that particular community so I encourage folks to take a look at that.

HOST: Thanks so much Al for joining us today on Diving Deeper to share more about your experience collecting these powerful aerial images after disasters. To learn more, the website that was mentioned again is visiting

That's all for today's show - thanks for tuning in. Diving Deeper will be back in just two weeks!