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NRCS Develops New Web App to Expedite Agency Response to Harvey

By Dee Ann Littlefield, Public Affairs Specialist

When disasters like Hurricane Harvey hit working agriculture lands, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) is one of the first responders on the scene. The NRCS in Texas now has a new way to respond even faster with a new recently developed web app – the Hurricane Harvey Damage Reporter.

“We have staff serving in every county that can help landowners assess their damages and make a plan for recovery,” says NRCS State Conservationist Salvador Salinas. “We have technical assistance we can offer them and also financial programs they can sign up for to ease the burden of impacts of the disaster.”
Before any financial assistance contracts can be awarded, NRCS staff has to go onsite to the affected areas and complete Damage Survey Reports (DSRs) for the agency. These DSRs document the type of damage that has occurred such as livestock mortality, fences wiped out, debris, severe erosion issues, the location of the damage and document damage through photos.

In Hurricanes Ike and Rita, staff went out in the field, took handwritten notes about the damage, wrote down the location, took pictures and then had to return to the office, to download and enter the information on their computer. They had to look up the latitude and longitude points from their notes to document the exact location and then save all that information in several different locations.

“It was a long process for our staff,” says NRCS State Soil Scientist Alan Stahnke. “I knew there had to be a way to make it more efficient for them.”
Stahnke had been working with Steven Diehl, GIS technician, and others on his staff for several months on an ArcGIS application, ArcCollector, based on ESRI map data. They had the basics down and when Hurricane Harvey showed up on the radar, they knew they had to work double fast to get the app ready for staff in the wake of Harvey’s wrath. The resulting smart phone device field tool - the Hurricane Harvey Damage Reporter – is a method to record the damage and collect information on all the points into a central database.

“This damage report is a web application that staff use to submit reports on debris build up, damage and livestock issues caused by Hurricane Harvey in real time on their phone, right there on location,” Stahnke says. “What used to take staff hours to document in the field, can now all be done in a matter of minutes.

“The photos taken with their phone are geo-tagged so they are pinpointed on the map so any staff member can log in and see the pics and exactly where they were taken,” Stahnke explains. “The information they enter in the app describes exactly the kind of resource issue occurring at that specific location. This is all logged in to a central database and compiled into reports that will be extremely helpful for managing staff workload and agency resources effectively.”

To use the tool, NRCS staff download Collector for ArcGIS from the App store. Once they are logged in to ArcGIS, they can begin using the Hurricane Harvey Damage Reporter app. Photos they take and information they enter instantly populate the map and database.

NRCS State Resource Conservationist Kristy Oates was one of first specialists to use the app in the field.

“The Hurricane Harvey Damage Reporter tool is extremely user friendly and very accurate,” Oates says. “As soon as roads were passable, I traveled through some of the hardest hit areas in Refugio, Port Lavaca and Victoria and was able to document cropland damages, livestock concerns, debris and erosion issues that I encountered. This will be very helpful in determining how to allocate staff and the type of assistance needed in different areas.”

The app contains other features such as road closure and frequent satellite map updates as they are made available through ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute).

“This app has the potential to reduce our staff time documenting DSRs by as much as 80 percent,” Salinas says. “This now frees up more of their time for one on one producer assistance. It’s a win-win for the agency and producers.”

NRCS Develops New Web App to Expedite Agency Response to Harvey, Dee Ann Littlefield, USDA-NRCS PAS (2017, September)