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Caribbean calls for aid; Tennessee Airmen use analytical skills in Irma recovery

Airmen from the 118th Wing analyze damage from Hurricane Irma in the U.S. Virgin Islands from geospatial imagery on Sept. 14, 2017 at Berry Field Air National Guard Base, Nashville, Tennessee. Airmen from the 118th Wing provided valuable damage information to people working on the ground throughout the Caribbean, which helped speed up the recovery process. (U.S Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Anthony Agosti)

Airmen from the 118th Wing analyze damage from Hurricane Irma in the U.S. Virgin Islands from geospatial imagery on Sept. 14, 2017 at Berry Field Air National Guard Base, Nashville, Tennessee. Airmen from the 118th Wing provided valuable damage information to people working on the ground throughout the Caribbean, which helped speed up the recovery process. (U.S Air National Guard photo by Senior Airman Anthony Agosti)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Hurricane Irma devastated much of the Caribbean in September 2017, but Airmen from Berry Field Air National Guard Base in Nashville, Tennessee were able to help the islands’ recovery without even leaving the state.

Airmen from the 118th Wing utilized their skills in geospatial imagery analysis, and experience in working previous natural disasters, to provide damage assessment products to first responders on the ground, and therefore quicken the recovery process.

“[We] first started in Puerto Rico, and moved to a small island outside of Puerto Rico, and did a lot of damage assessments there,” said Master Sgt. Lauren, a member of the 118th Wing. “And then we moved to Florida, it keeps growing each day.”

“The way things are now a days with technology, there’s not really a friction of distance or time,” said Capt. Charles, a member of the 118th Wing. “We can create a product, upload it to a common portal they have access to and they can get it pretty quick as well.”

The process in which the Airmen create the damage assessment products requires going through numerous satellite pictures of the area from multiple agencies.

“Basically we look at the first image, pre-disaster imagery, and then we look at the home or whatever we are trying to analyze,” said Lauren. “Then we compare it to the post-disaster imagery we are receiving daily.”

“We’ve had Civil Air Patrol imagery, imagery from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, as well as from NASA,” said Charles. “USGS [United States Geological Survey] has been another big source as well.”

From the images, the 118th Airmen are able to identify a variety of damage inflicted by the hurricane.

“Mainly [we see] wind damage, a lot of blown debris, collapsed structures; and every now and then, depending on when the image was shot, you’ll see flooding,” said Charles. “We can also see if anything leaks, if there are materials or substances that are unnatural that leak into natural waterways.”

The 118th Airmen have already created over 100 damage assessment products from the imagery for ground crews to use, said Lauren.
With the birds-eye view and analysis the Airmen are able to provide, it provides essential advice to the first responders on the ground.

“FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] has been getting back with us saying it’s really helpful,” said Lauren. “It’s going to speed up their reach out to these people who’ve lost their homes.”

“The feedback we’ve gotten is that they’ve incorporated a lot of the stuff we have produced, and it’s helped make their job easier,” said Charles. “Being able to provide them some of those situational awareness products, and say ‘Hey don’t worry so much about this area, this area is a little more impacted,’ again helps drive their decision making process.”

With the great response they have received from the other agencies, the 118th Airmen expect to be called upon again in the future for other natural disasters.

“Through what we’ve been doing and through all the good feedback we’ve received, I think we will be one of the front-runners,” said Lauren. “I think we are near the top of this list of people that they want to help do the damage assessments.”

The 118th Airmen are very appreciative in being able to utilize their unique skill sets and provide a valuable asset in the recovery efforts from afar.

“I think it’s a good motivator, being able to do the mission, being a true Guardsmen,” said Charles. “Leverage your best skill set versus going back to the sandbags and holding a gun.”

“For me this is probably the most exciting thing I’ve done as a traditional weekend warrior,” said Lauren. “I’ve also enjoyed that it’s actually helping people here in the U.S.”
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