Connecting state and local government leaders
Hurricane season is officially underway, and one county in Florida is looking to utilize the cloud to build on lessons learned during one of the state's most devastating hurricanes.
As a new hurricane season starts today, officials in Charlotte County, Florida, are studying lessons learned from Hurricane Ian, a Category 5 storm that devastated the state in September 2022.
One lesson is taking pictures of storm surges and high water marks. “We didn’t have the storm surge that Lee County did,” said Ben Bailey, the county’s community development director. “But in talking with Lee County, they gave us some pointers.” Officials there stressed the importance of taking pictures, advising that images be mandatory and that those pictures showing high-water marks include a tape measure to ensure accurate data is uploaded into the damage assessment system, he said.
Charlotte County has been using solutions from Accela, a cloud-based platform for government permitting, licensing and service request management, since 2017, when Hurricane Irma hit. Before that, the process was “pretty archaic,” Bailey said. When Hurricane Charley hit in 2004, the last storm before Irma to affect the county, inspectors used paper and damage assessment took months.
“We had two people go out in a vehicle—one person would be driving and the other person would be taking notes and filling out paperwork,” Bailey said. “Once that was done, paperwork would come back to the office, and we had many people doing data entry.”
After Ian, however, response involved one person visiting sites with a tablet, smartphone or laptop and entering information into pre-determined fields, essentially taking notes and doing data entry at the same time. Inspectors can also add pictures and other helpful documentation.
“They would go out in the field and do a damage assessment and are able to determine, ‘The roof has 50% damage, and the windows and doors sustained 20% damage,’ and we’ll be able to run calculations off the property appraiser data for value and get an estimate of damage based on what the inspector seeing,” Bailey said. “It’s instantly put into the system, so we don’t need this extra manpower back in the office doing data entry. We can concentrate our staff and our resources out in the field. We were able to do the damage assessment for Hurricane Ian within a month.”
Last fall, Accela made available for free its Rapid Damage Assessment (RDA) Cloud Service to all Florida counties affected by Ian. The solution assists with windshield surveys, or visual inspections of properties made from a vehicle, and with more detailed inspections that include digital placarding so officials can post signs designating whether structures are safe to enter.
Today, the company announced an expansion of RDA that focuses on preparation as much as response. That involves “using Federal Emergency Management Agency data or other types of data, identifying areas that are maybe higher risk for flooding ahead of time and then overlaying that also with information from fire inspections or environmental data like storage of hazardous materials,” said Amber D’Ottavio, vice president of product management at Accela. For instance, officials can see if a facility that houses hazardous chemicals is in a flood zone, and they can go there proactively to inspect its preparation for flooding.
Additionally, the new RDA has a tighter integration with GIS software company Esri. “Most government agencies have Esri installed locally,” D’Ottavio said. They can use Esri’s ArcGIS Survey123 tool for building forms to do windshield surveys and then that data is automatically fed into the Accela Civic Platform in real time.
“Once that information is passed in, it’ll automatically schedule all the inspections, assign it to all the regions and the different inspectors so that they can go out there and do the detailed inspection,” she said. “A lot of the manual things that they would do today, it does it automatically for them.”
The standard solution comes with fields that FEMA requires for disaster assistance funding, but users can add custom fields, she added. What’s more, inspectors can still use the app without internet access. When users are offline, it will store the data and automatically populate the system when connectivity resumes.
Additionally, Accela provides a dashboard that helps users prioritize inspections and permitting by flagging structures as high priority based on the data coming in, D’Ottavio said. A map shows progress in real time so that officials can see where inspections have been completed and where they’re still needed.
“Because of those efficiencies, then they’re able to get funding more quickly to be able to repair [structures, and] insurance claims can be filed sooner, so that people can get the money to get their lives basically back together,” she said.
RDA Cloud Service is not limited to damage from hurricanes, however. It also works for fires, floods, tornadoes and other disasters.
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.