Geographical Science in Action During Hurricane Katrina

Geographical scientists played an important role in the response to Hurricane Katrina. Geographical scientists from Louisiana State University occupied the GIS desk in Louisiana’s emergency operations center (EOC), mapping 911 calls, making recommendations for the best places to locate shelters, and processing imagery to show flood extent. One geographical scientist helped create the map that became the primary visualization used by the EOC to understand situation awareness—a Google Earth mashupa showing the flood extent on top of a three-dimensional image of New Orleans. Geographical scientists also used Google Earth to identify possible landing zones close to health facilities for search-and-rescue helicopter pilots and helped coordinate responses among agencies. In addition, they accompanied Red Cross Disaster Assessment Teams in the field, helping them understand and map residential changes in the wake of the hurricane.


aA mashup is a product that combines data from two or more sources into a new single product.

consequences for the Gulf Coast and beyond (see Box 1). The core concepts, methods, and tools of the geographical sciences are essential not only for assessing what happened, but also for asking what will become of New Orleans and surrounding areas, for evaluating alternative redevelopment scenarios, and for developing designs that will prevent a similar-scale disaster in the future.


Drawing upon the four core concepts described through the example of Hurricane Katrina, empirical work in the geographical sciences focuses on documenting, analyzing, and explaining (1) the location, organization, and character of physical and human phenomena on the surface of Earth and (2) the interplay of arrangements and processes, near and far, human and environmental, that shape the evolving character of places, regions, and ecosystems. These concerns, which have long been central to the discipline of geography, have recently been taken up by researchers in a range of disciplines who are interested in how the geographical configuration and interaction of different phenomena shape the evolution of places, environments, and societies. To cite only a few examples, spatial econometrics has emerged as a major subfield of economics, environmental studies programs with a focus on human impacts on the environment have sprung up in universities and research institutes across the country, a Spatial Pattern Analysis Program for Categorical Maps (FRAGSTATS) is increasingly used in ecological research, and geographical technologies2 have come to play a central role in fields ranging from epidemiology to archeology.

The rapid growth of the geographical sciences over the past two decades is a reflection of both technological developments and changing research priorities. On the technological side, modern remote sensing systems have greatly enhanced the ability of the scientific community to access increasingly high-resolution, near real-time data on the operations of human and biophysical systems.3 At the same time, a quartet of technologies—GIS, Global Positioning Systems (GPS), remote sensing, and geospatial visualization—have facilitated the processing, analysis, and representation of geographical data. It is only a modest exaggeration to say that these technologies are revolutionizing everything from the workplace to everyday life—with profound implications for information management, governance, commerce, and travel.

On the research front, growing concern about human alteration of the environment, the impacts of globalization, and resource depletion has fostered a great deal of scientific interest in climate change, land-cover change, watershed restoration, sustainability, migration, and global inequality. All of these matters raise fundamentally geographical questions. How are human and environmental systems linked,


The adjective geospatial is increasingly used to refer to data about identified locations on Earth’s surface, and the tools used to manipulate those data. As such it is essentially synonymous with geographical, which seems more appropriate in the context of this report.


Note, however, that remote sensing provides far more data on biophysical systems than on human systems.

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