Water Kept Rising

How Coast Guard Intelligence mapped hurricane impact.

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Video by Courtesy DVIDS, Staff Sgt. Isaac Garden DVIDS, Pfc. Joseph E Cannon DVIDS

U.S. Coast Guard Geospatial Intelligence

Approximately 1,200 miles away in Springfield, VA, a small group of U.S. Coast Guard Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT) officers was closely monitoring the situation via satellite imagery, Coast Guard reports, and thrice-daily calls with a multi-agency disaster response coalition led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The 10-person Coast Guard GEOINT unit, eight of whom were available to be interviewed for this story, is part of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Intelligence Coordination Center. They’re a tight-knit team of uniformed “Coasties” and civilian personnel embedded at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), where they perform geospatial analysis in support of Coast Guard missions. Established at NGA in 2014, the unit reflects a history of collaboration with NGA on geospatial cases with a maritime bent. Embedding at NGA allows USCG personnel to take advantage of NGA training and resources to support the USCG’s 11 statutory missions.

We had imagery of clear paths of the water’s destruction. [The flooding] washed away or sunk a significant number of boats, creating potential maritime pollution and hazards to navigation. It looked like someone took Matchbox toy boats and just threw them. It was pretty moving, what the imagery was showing.end quote

Ensign J., an imagery analyst on the team

All team members requested their full names not be used, in the interest of personnel security.

The 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season was the Most Active storm season since 2005.


Compare Long-term average

Hurricane Harvey, which formed in August 2017, was only the first of several big storms to impact the U.S. and its neighbors that year.

The team had supported hurricane relief efforts before—notably, Hurricane Matthew in 2016—but nothing on this scale and never so many intense storms back-to-back.

Beginning with Harvey, the hurricanes hammered the U.S. and its neighbors swiftly one after the other. Relief agencies only had a day or two between each to marshal their resources and prepare for the next one. In a period of just over six weeks, from August to October 2017, the Coast Guard GEOINT team worked long days to support relief efforts for four of the six major hurricanes.

Harvey and the hurricanes that followed tested the team members’ dedication and stretched their ingenuity and resourcefulness, resulting in new, more efficient ways of doing business that ultimately helped [tens of thousands of] residents of hurricane-hit areas. These innovative processes continued to bear fruit for future natural disaster responses.

It was five, almost six weeks straight of seven-days-a-week support.end quote

Ensign J., an imagery analyst on the team

We were working to give situational awareness to operators and decision-makers in the field, so that they could figure out what’s going on and make resourcing decisions on the ground. But we were also feeding that same information to other echelons. Our products were getting briefed on a daily basis to the commandant of the Coast Guard and his senior staff to give them better situational awareness. We were also sharing our products with the DHS [Department of Homeland Security] S1 briefing staff, so the DHS Secretary was also aware of what was going on, on the ground.end quote

Commander T., GEOINT department head


As the water rose in Houston, residents in need were calling not just 911, but also the Coast Guard and the state Emergency Operations Center.The local networks quickly became so overwhelmed, all Coast Guard calls were routed to the Coast Guard’s National Command Center in Washington, DC, which set up a special triage unit to track calls and coordinate responses.

Google earth image with overlays showing where water fell.
August 27, Hurricane Harvey Inundation
Original Source

With so many calls coming in, it was difficult to identify areas and individuals with the greatest need. To address their customer’s information needs, the GEOINT team decided to create a “heat map” showing caller locations and the type of assistance requested so that first responders could better manage their resources on the ground.

The team started by calling the Houston Emergency Operations Center and worked closely with the Coast Guard member embedded within their Operations Center. The Coast Guard liaison officer connected them to the Houston Police Department to get the 911 call logs. Because the Coast Guard GEOINT unit is part of the Intelligence Community, it is restricted in collecting or accessing personal identifiable information (PII) on U.S. persons, such as name, age, gender, or social security number—which meant that the call logs had to be stripped of such information before the GEOINT unit could receive them.

Approximately 40 hours later, the GEOINT team received a sanitized Excel spreadsheet with 911 caller locations and the nature of their distress. The team combined the 911 call data with the Coast Guard call logs—again, ensuring all PII had been removed—for a more complete picture of the situation.

“We were able to parse [the information] out so that we had the crime calls in one bucket and we had the distress calls in another bucket and then we were able to plot both sets of data geospatially and create heat maps to help drive some of the operational decisions on the ground,” explained Commander T. “It was pretty forward-leaning because I don’t think anyone in the IC had that data. [It was] the missing piece.”

The data and resulting heat maps were sent to the Coast Guard to help with search and rescue efforts, however word soon got out and other federal agencies started requesting it. With permission from the police department in Houston, the GEOINT team was able to share the sanitized information and the accompanying heat maps—a move that focused and facilitated relief work.

It was really disheartening to read some of the stuff that people were calling in about and saying,” noted Intelligence Specialist First Class (IS1) W., a geospatial analyst on the team. “A lot of sad things. ‘We’re in a house. We’re trapped. The water level’s rising and I have my 85-year-old grandfather here and we can’t move him. What do we do?end quote

Intelligence Specialist First Class (IS1) W.

Coast Guard Eyes in the Sky
Coast Guard eyes in the sky helped guide rescuers to Hurricane Harvey victims
Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Paul Dragin DVIDS

A Personal Connection

For imagery analyst Ensign J., Houston wasn't just a series of map coordinates, it was her hometown community. Ensign J. is from Houston and her family still lives there. Tracking the havoc Harvey wrecked on Houston was more than just a long day at the office.

As Harvey was losing strength over Louisiana, another storm was gaining strength over the Caribbean: Irma—the strongest Atlantic Ocean hurricane on record according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

In the span of a week, Irma grew from a tropical storm to a Category 5 hurricane, with maximum winds of 185 miles per hour propelling it across Cuba to Florida. On 10 September 2017, it unleashed 130-mile-per-hour winds on the Florida Keys as it moved northward.

This time, based on lessons learned from the earlier storm, the GEOINT team had quickly developed a new tool for its toolkit: a dynamic online geospatial “event portal” that pulled in data from multiple sources—including NOAA—to show what was happening in the hurricane zone in real time. The portal combined maps with data layers that users could toggle on and off to see what was most important to them. Any Coast Guard user with a Common Access Card could access the portal at any time, from any Coast Guard workstation.

read more about the Coast Guard Geospatial Event Portal

As Hurricane Irma powered down—leaving flooding and damage across Florida—Hurricane Jose came on the scene, impacting the Caribbean and eking out some final damage on the coast of New England. Hot on Jose’s tails was Hurricane Maria, which first hit the tiny Caribbean island of Dominica as a Category 5 hurricane before making landfall in Puerto Rico on 20 September as a high-end Category 4 hurricane, with winds of 155 miles per hour. (See a map of all the 2017 hurricanes’ paths.) The destruction was massive.

At NGA in Virginia, for the Coast Guard GEOINT department, all hands were on deck to provide support. The event portal was humming along, allowing the team to focus on a list of 86 targets given to them by the Coast Guard—including ports, buoys, dams and reservoirs, and sunken sailboats that could be leaking oil. Their assessments of each target’s post-storm status would “give the on-scene commander awareness of the level of damage, to help decision-making,” according to Commander T.

By the time Maria hit, the team had perfected its hurricane playbook. They knew their roles, they had honed their processes, and they could anticipate their customers’ needs. Ensign J. commented, “We really quickly got into a great workflow, roles, communication.”

We did learn as the hurricanes [progressed],” recalled Mr. T., senior imagery analyst. “As the third hurricane showed up, we had learned what we needed to do, what we should focus on, and what was not as important. As the hurricanes kept coming in, we were able to refine our work. From a support standpoint, from the streamlining, from data availability—everything got better as the hurricanes went on.end quote

Mr. T., a Senior Imagery Analyst

I get to see the stuff first-hand and then see the outcome of my products. I see it down there, they seize it up here. That’s direct impact of the mission. It’s rewarding. Makes you want to come to work and catch bad guys.end quote

IS2 H. is an imagery analyst with a law enforcement background whose GEOINT work supports U.S. counter-narcotics efforts.

start quote

It’s really rewarding to be able to know that you could have possibly saved someone’s life, you’ve done something meaningful. And that’s what keeps you coming in and working the long hours when you need to. It’s dedication to the mission.end quote

Ensign J., Imagery Analyst, Coast Guard Intelligence

Video by Petty Officer 3rd Class Corinne Zilnicki DVIDS

The 2017 hurricane season was an intense period of long days for this small team, and they rose to the challenge. Intelligence Specialist Second Class (IS2) S., an imagery analyst, said he and the rest of the team took the demanding schedule in stride. “I don’t think anybody in our shop really minded the long hours. We’re all pretty much willing to put in the time because everything is pretty time-relevant. You want to get as much information out as fast as possible so people can make decisions.”

IS2 S.’s sentiment was echoed universally by his teammates. Chief R. observed of her GEOINT colleagues, “I can’t speak highly enough of the people that work in this shop. They never said no, they never balked. They were always ready to step up and come in wherever, whenever.”

Ensign J. added, “The team never asked up the chain, ‘What’s in it for me?’ Because that’s part of being in the uniform. It’s selfless. We really just kind of buckled down and got the job done.”

During Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, the Coast Guard rescued more than 11,000 people and 1,500 pets; and removed 3,600 damaged or sunken boats from the water. It is likely that the team’s products did have an impact on those numbers, although it’s impossible to calculate a one-to-one correlation.

The efficiencies gained during the hurricane season have been put to good use in the months since. Notably, the event portal was used for Coast Guard personnel accountability during the California wildfires of December 2017 and again during deadly mudslides in California in early 2018. Both events required it to be updated to pull in specific, relevant data feeds, different from those accessed during the hurricanes. The portal is such an effective tool, in fact, that as soon as the mudslides hit, Coast Guard operators in the field contacted the GEOINT team asking, “Where’s our portal?”

This was not the first use of GEOINT by Coast Guard intelligence personnel to support disaster response. In 2005 Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast causing extensive catastrophic damage. During the recovery, Coast Guard intelligence levied national and commercial imagery to better inform decision makers as to the extent of the damage and how to best respond. Again, in 2010 when the DEEPWATER HORIZON oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded causing a Spill of National significance that released millions of barrels of oil into the sea, Coast Guard Intelligence personnel used imagery to better inform the cleanup efforts.

Another positive outcome is the increased visibility the GEOINT team has gained as a result of their efforts. The team and its capabilities weren’t well known before the 2017 hurricane season but since then, their intelligence products have become must-reads for Coast Guard customers as high as the Commandant himself, particularly when natural disasters strike.

“Prior to all these hurricanes, I think only a small fraction of the operational Coast Guard knew who we were or what we did here, what we can provide them,” pointed out Chief R. “When you think intel, you think more of a national security mindset, versus support to natural disasters—fires, hurricanes, earthquakes. We as a department touched a large portion of the Coast Guard through all these natural disasters. We established and played a critical support role here, and now the field-level Coast Guard knows that they have reach-back support for imagery analysis or geospatial analysis when it comes to floods, fires, mudslides, etc.”

The team’s work during those weeks demonstrated their resourcefulness, dedication, and successful teamwork with government partners. More than anything, it demonstrated the degree to which they embody the Coast Guard’s motto, Semper Paratus—Always Ready.

Semper Paratus
Video by Petty Officer 3rd Class David Micallef DVIDS