The 2017 hurricane season was one of the worst in recent history, with over a dozen named hurricanes striking the United States. Hurricane Harvey alone affected Texas and Louisiana counties where nearly 20 million people live, and recovery efforts are still underway to restore homes and businesses.
Just last week, Hurricane Lane, now a Tropical Storm, dumped more than 40 inches of rain on the Hawaiian Islands, causing severe flooding and mudslides.
But how do recovery organizations such as FEMA tailor their efforts to the people, homes and businesses in each affected area?
They rely heavily on data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau.
Programs such as the American Community Survey provide key demographic, socioeconomic and housing data that help guide not only recovery efforts but planning for future emergencies.
Knowing that 22 percent of the people in ZIP code 77565 (a coastal ZIP south of Seabrook, Texas) or 86 percent of the population in 77011 (just east of Houston) speak Spanish as their primary language at home helps emergency management officials deploy specific resources and staff to areas that need them most.
Knowing that 1964 is the median year that homes in ZIP code 77520 (Baytown, Texas) were built is also invaluable to building contractors and building-supply wholesalers. That tells them the location of homes that may be more vulnerable to storms.
So, where specifically can emergency management officials go to access this information?
OnTheMap for Emergency Management is updated every four hours using feeds from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other federal partners.
It overlays the boundaries of tropical storms, wildfires, floods, severe winter weather and other disaster declaration areas onto a map of key Census Bureau demographic and workforce data. It then aggregates these data to the event and allows officials to get updated information for potentially impacted areas.
Also, the information for each event is archived, allowing planners to compare information on previous events with ongoing emergencies.
While OnTheMap for Emergency Management excels at providing detailed information for events as they occur, Census Business Builder allows emergency management officials to draw a “What if…” scenario for planning purposes.
Emergency planners prepare not only for the potential impact of weather events but also for other emergencies.
For example, many of the coastal communities along the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Virginia are especially vulnerable to flooding and wind damage if hurricanes pass along the East Coast of the United States and enter the bay.
Census Business Builder allows these planners to create maps of the ZIP codes along the Chesapeake. These maps provide key data to help them plan evacuation routes, for example.
Another valuable data set is the Census Bureau’s LEHD Origin-Destination Employment Estimates (LODES). Knowing commuter flows – where people live and where they work – can help emergency responders and local officials plan evacuation routes and assess the potential extent of business damage caused by natural disasters.
Many Census Bureau products combine demographic, socioeconomic and housing data with key business- and consumer-spending statistics.
This information can help identify potential vulnerabilities. For example, it can tell planners if hospitals or building- materials wholesalers in potentially vulnerable areas are equipped and ready to handle an emergency.
Helping people make informed decisions using data is a key part of the Census Bureau’s mission. Entrepreneurs and community planners benefit and so do emergency responders.
Andrew W. Hait is a survey statistician/economist at the Census Bureau.
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