May 22nd, 2013
07:02 PM ET

Satellite agency analyzes twister destruction for first responders

By Pam Benson

The people who usually analyze imagery from U.S. spy satellites are helping emergency workers respond to the devastation from this week's deadly twister in Oklahoma.

Shortly after the tornado struck, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) asked the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to provide expertise to assess video, pictures and satellite imagery of the destruction.

And for the first time, NGA analysts are using an unclassified website to share that information with first responders.

Their assessments aim to help rescue workers conduct search and rescue operations and begin recovery efforts.

It's been part NGA's mission to provide humanitarian and disaster assistance when requested by a federal agency, but it's never been accomplished in real time on the Internet.

Hurricane Sandy, which devastated parts of the Northeast last October, prompted the agency to pursue a better way to more quickly respond.

The website only contains unclassified material and is available to authorized first responders and other appropriate federal, state, and local government personnel.

Recipients also have access on mobile devices.

The first medium NGA analysts turned to after the tornado slammed into Oklahoma was live television.

NGA senior analyst Lou Halbert said there's no reason to wait for traditional methods of collecting data.

"There is some amazing airborne collection that is occurring out there during an event," Halbert said at a briefing this week about the new website.

In an interview with CNN, Halbert said analysts watch video on the Internet and pause it to search for clues that will help the first responders determine what to focus on.

"What we're able to do is to show the level of catastrophic or the level of damage that we can see through those video still frames. In this case we're looking to see how impacted has the infrastructure or the structure of the buildings been devastated," he said.

The analysts compare the video of the damage with existing satellite imagery of the area that pinpoints schools, municipal buildings, theaters and other locations where people may congregate.

The information is passed on to first responders who don't have time to analyze video on TV or the Web.

"We can actually do the assessment for them, push it towards them," Halbert said. "Especially now, urban search and rescue is currently en route they will have assessments on the ground before they arrive."

And that could save lives, he said.

The analysts are also waiting to receive satellite images that have been stymied by heavy cloud cover, and for civil air patrol flights to begin, in order to help paint a clearer picture of the situation on the ground.

NGA has also deployed three analysts and three technicians to Oklahoma to help coordinate efforts.

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Filed under: Intelligence • NGA • Tornado
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