Auburn's GPS mapping of coastal utilities to aid hurricane recoveries

By Charles Martin, Office of Communications and Marketing


DSCN1617AUBURN - Auburn University researchers and students are mapping thousands of utility meters, valves and fire hydrants along Alabama's Gulf Coast -- a project that will help communities recover quicker after hurricanes.

Walking along streets and beaches, they have covered 90 miles and recorded more than 12,000 utility points in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, typing in the locations on advanced GPS units.

 "The electronic map will be very helpful for communities recovering from hurricane damage," said Chetan Sankar, professor of management in Auburn's College of Business. "Meters and valves become covered with sand or they are destroyed, and manhole covers and street signs can be washed or blown away.

"The mapped latitude and longitude will help utilities workers find the original locations so they can begin repairs sooner. It will be especially helpful for volunteers who aid in the recovery efforts but might not be familiar with the area."

Eighty students have participated in the mapping, representing the College of Business, Samuel Ginn College of Engineering and Department of Geography and Geology in the College of Sciences and Mathematics.

"The project has been going really smoothly," Auburn student Kati Jones said. "We've had a lot of people in the community ask us what we are doing. Everybody seems excited that we are here and that the project will help them get their power back on after a hurricane."

In October, Auburn University created the Geospatial Research and Applications Center in the College of Business that will build upon Sankar's research and will explore the use of additional technology, such as radio frequency identification, or RFID, tags to help locate utilities after a storm. Auburn's new business dean, Bill Hardgrave, who joined the Auburn faculty in August, focuses his research on RFID and will lead that aspect of the project.

The Gulf Coast mapping project began in 2009, but the idea came about in 2005 after Sankar did a similar, smaller project for Baldwin County officials. "All the local governments are eager to have mapping of their infrastructure," he said, "and our students really enjoy finding and recording the locations."

Students have already walked and mapped Orange Beach, Gulf Shores and part of Dauphin Island. They plan to complete the mapping of Dauphin Island this spring and then start recording locations in Bayou La Batre.

"As a coastal Alabama resort destination, the City of Orange Beach realizes the need for a fast and orderly recovery from coastal storm damage," Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon said. "Our partnership with the Geospatial Research and Applications Center at Auburn has allowed us to take the first step to accommodate the need for quick utility location in advance of a debris recovery effort."

Sankar says future plans might include an interactive map that could also be placed online, so displaced homeowners could login to see if utility services have been restored to their neighborhoods.

The project is funded by the U.S. Economic Development Administration and conducted with Auburn collaborators David Mixson of the Auburn Technical Assistance Center; Amit Mitra of the College of Business; P.K. Raju of the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering; and Luke Marzen of the Department of Geography and Geology.

Partners include municipalities and utility companies in Mobile and Baldwin counties; Baldwin County Economic Development Administration; Alabama Department of Homeland Security; and Alabama Emergency Management Agency.

"With the economic blows suffered by this community from the downturn of the economy followed by the effects of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, our community has learned the benefits of partnering with other agencies to bring the necessary resources to quickly respond and recover," said Steve Henderson, Gulf Shores geographic information systems coordinator. "This partnership is yet another opportunity to enhance our joint capabilities."

More information is available at the website,

Last Updated: Feb. 25, 2011

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