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College of Arts & Sciences
Hazards & Vulnerability Research Institute

Assessing the Use of Geographical Information Technology in Responding to the September 11 Terrorist Attack in New York City

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A Quick Response Proposal to the Natural Hazards 
Research and Applications Information Center Boulder, Colorado

Deborah S.K. Thomas (University of Colorado, Denver)
Susan L. Cutter, Michael Hodgson, Mike Gutekunst, Steven Jones (University of South Carolina)

This project will evaluate the use of geographical technologies (GIS, GPS, remote sensing) in the rescue (impact to 7 days), relief (7-21 days), and cleanup (impact-45 days) phases of the terrorist incident in New York City.

The September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington D.C. were witnessed live on television by millions of people. As the events unfolded, the use of cell phones as warning devices became clear. Similarly, the use of GIS and remote sensing in displaying the geographical extent of damage both in the print and electronic media were apparent as well. Among the most significant lifeline disruptions in the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center was the total destruction of New York City's Emergency Operations Center, the nerve center for coordinating response and recovery efforts. In light of the creation of a new EOC, did they have all the requisite spatial information that was needed to effectively respond to the disaster? More generally, to what extent were GIS-based decision support systems used during the rescue, relief, and cleanup phases of the disaster by other responders ranging from the federal government to the private sector? For example, did responders need certain spatial information that was not immediately available? Was there sufficient expertise and software to support emergency management efforts? How did the use of geographical technologies vary by agency/sector? What factors enhanced the use of such technology in real time? What factors inhibited its use?

Previous Research
The uses of geographical technologies in hazard research have been reviewed elsewhere (Mileti, 1999; Cutter 2001). Most of this research was oriented toward pre-impact planning and risk assessment, rather than post-disaster response. There is little systematic research, for example, on the use of these technologies in real-time settings and constraints on use such as data difficulties. Thus, the September 11 attack affords an opportunity to acquire some valuable information on the community's "hands on" real-time experience with such technologies. Many of these impressions on the use of technologies are perishable and will not be archived in any systematic way, especially the experiences of the technical support staff. This justifies the need to quickly interview many of the key players and to capture some of the elusive data present on the world wide web.

Data for this analysis will come from web-based sources, media accounts, and face-to-face (or phone) interviews with technical support staff in the following sectors:

  1. FEMA (headquarters and Region 2)
  2. Local Responders in New York City's Emergency Operations Center
  3. Other federal agencies in the Federal Response Plan
  4. Private consultants and contractors (ESRI, Space Imaging, etc.)

Using a snowball sampling approach, we will try to identify both data providers and data users as respondents to our interviews. In evaluating the effectiveness of the technology, we will chronicle the following:

  • Type of geographical technology/technique used (GIS, GPS, remote sensing)
  • Sources of geographic data (new aerial photography, existing spatial databases)
  • Timing of its use (pre-impact, rescue, relief, cleanup)
  • Purpose (as an element in a spatial decision support system, display of information for the public, elected officials)
  • Problems that reduced its effective use (software, data, loss of power, loss of cell towers)
  • Areas where the use of spatial decision support systems made a difference in the response and the deployment of assets
  • Evidence of the lack of use of geographical technologies
  • Means of use (centralized, portable, wireless, in the field at ground zero)
  • What has not readily available that needed to be (spatial data, expertise, software, hardware)

Part of the research team will be deployed to New York City to gather data in face-to-face interviews with front-line responders including the New York City EOC and back up GIS support located at Hunter College. The remainder of the research team will interview (via telephone or else through electronic communication) federal representatives, federal/state/local contractors, private GIS and remote sensing companies. A standardized questionnaire will be employed for all interviews.

In comparing the use (or lack of use) of geographical technologies (and the spatial databases they contain) by various agencies, we can assess the practicality of such technology in all the post-event phases of the disaster. Understanding the needs for real-time spatial data in the immediate rescue and relief phases, and its role in decision-making and logistical support will help us improve such systems in the future by providing information on gaps in data, application, and use.


Mileti, D. 1999. Disasters by Design: A Reassessment of Natural Hazards in the United States. Washington D.C.: Joseph Henry Press.

Cutter, S. (editor). 2001. American Hazardscapes: The Regionalization of Hazards and Disasters. Washington D.C.: Joseph Henry Press.