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Geospatial-Intelligence Agency helps eyeball Mississippi floods

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which helped pinpoint the Pakistan hideout of Osama bin Laden, this week is using its tools, systems and analysts to help assess potential impact of Mississippi River floods on bridges, roads and other critical infrastructure in the South, a senior agency analytical manager told Nextgov.

The manager, who declined to be identified for security reasons, said NGA is also helping the Federal Emergency Management Agency eyeball and map debris fields in Alabama in the wake of the hundreds of tornadoes that battered that state last month.

NGA maintains detailed information on the country's critical infrastructure in its Homeland Security Infrastructure Program, which was set up in 2001 to serve as a clearinghouse of mission-critical geospatial and remote sensing information needed to reduce response and recovery times in the event of a natural or terrorist-caused disaster within the United States.

An internal NGA presentation shows that this database includes imagery data at a resolution of 1 foot or better, along with elevation data and vector data on critical infrastructure.

The NGA manager said the agency has tapped this database in support of FEMA to provide precise information, for example, on bridges that could be overwhelmed by the floods. This database, the manager said, details the height and width of those bridges, which becomes important as the Mississippi flood crest moves downstream and wide swaths of rural Louisiana in the Atchafalaya River basin become inundated following the this week's deliberate opening of floodgates on the Morganza Spillway, 40 miles north of Baton Rouge.

NGA said in a press release that it is supporting FEMA, the Homeland Security Department and the Army Corps of Engineers by producing models to predict the effects of releases from the spillway.

NGA's analyses include predicted and actual effects on critical infrastructure including roads, railways, airports, hospitals, Red Cross and other emergency facilities, power plants, piers and port facilities, petroleum refineries, and other industrial facilities, schools, water supplies and more.

"NGA provides a common operating picture that enables FEMA and emergency responders to work together more effectively and efficiently," said Philip J. Plack, NGA liaison to FEMA.

NGA also uses unclassified imagery data from commercial sources and the National Oceanographic and Atmospsheric Administration as well as classified imagery data to produce for FEMA what he called tailored products on the impact of the floods on bridges, roads, railroads, power plants and other key infrastructure, with all imagery information provided at the unclassified level.

These products are not delivered to FEMA as maps, the manager said, but rather as geographical information system data overlays to FEMA GIS systems that, if called upon, can output paper maps.

The manager said two NGA employees in Alabama are providing FEMA with data on the precise path of the tornadoes based in part on analysis of weather radar imagery. NGA also has two employees stationed at the FEMA regional headquarters in Denton, Texas, which is managing the larger response to the Mississippi floods.

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