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Oak Ridge scientists help FEMA during natural disasters

They're capturing images that can see which structures are damaged better than first responders on the ground.

OAK RIDGE — As hurricane season advances, scientists at Oak Ridge National Laboratory are working closely with FEMA to discover which buildings are damaged or destroyed. Mark Tuttle and his team use satellite imagery to create models that allow first responders to know which areas in a disaster zone need the most help.

"We’re seeing the larger area. When you’re on the ground, all you can see is what’s in your immediate vicinity and environment," Tuttle said. “What we can bring to the table is looking at a much larger, a much broader picture in a similar level of detail as those first responders back on the ground.”

Tuttle's team started working with FEMA during the rolling blackouts of 2003 then again during Hurricane Katrina. As the partnership grew, Tuttle says his team grew more proactive in their imaging.

"If it becomes serious enough, we start looking at the bigger picture and hopefully by the time FEMA reaches out and says we need help with this, we’ve already begun,” he said.

Normally, mapping the entire structural landscape of the United States would be extremely time consuming. However, ORNL technology allows the team to create programs that can learn how to recognize and map out buildings from just a few human-generated samples.

“If you think about how long it would take a person to delineate all the buildings in the U.S., that would be years...but thanks to technology we have today, It just took us a few months to delineate all the buildings in the continental united states," said Melanie Laverdiere, a research scientist on Tuttle's team.

FEMA uses the structural maps and pairs them with damage reports to know which areas are most susceptible to destruction and which might need the most aid. Tuttle says while his team is not physically on the ground in disaster zones, he appreciates knowing his work helps those who are.

“That’s what I find enjoyable about this is knowing that at some point downstream from the work that I’m doing, it’s going to help one of those people who are on the rooftop or whose house has been destroyed.”

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