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Bangkok-based PDC Southeast Asia Program Advisor Victoria Leat, left, presenting a training-of-trainers in Manila, Philippines, for Philippine Disaster Resilience Foundation (PDRF).

20 Years of innovation at the Pacific Disaster Center

Pacific Disaster Center (PDC) is a U.S.-based program with its headquarters on the island of Maui, Hawaii, which is dedicated to saving lives and securing developmental progress by fostering disaster resilience in countries and their communities around the globe.

The Center achieves those goals through innovative risk assessment applications and multi-hazard disaster monitoring, early warning, and decision support systems. PDC’s flagship technology is DisasterAWARE, which is in use by more than 1.6 million people worldwide, including nearly 10,000 disaster management professionals. The Center has actively worked with civilian and military authorities who have hazard- and disaster-related responsibilities in more than 60 countries, and that number is growing rapidly. PDC, now in its twenty-first year, has been managed by the University of Hawaii since 2006.

The development of PDC

PDC was created, at least in part, in response to Hurricane Iniki, which is widely described as the most powerful hurricane ever to strike the Hawaiian islands. Despite Central Pacific Hurricane Center predictions that Iniki would stay well south of the islands, it veered off the forecast path, heavily impacting the island of Kauai on September 11, 1992, doing nearly $2 billion in damage. For almost three-and-a-half years after that, Hawaii’s senior U.S. Senator Daniel K. Inouye worked to repurpose space-based imagery libraries, systems of near real-time satellite observation, and other related technologies to meet the needs of disaster managers. He wanted to create an organization that could find ways to apply cutting-edge technology to saving lives. The result was the Pacific Disaster Center.

Since opening in 1996, PDC has been working with a worldwide network of clients and partners to take steps toward a safer and more secure world. To that end, the Center addresses the related needs of decision makers, policy authorities, planners, disaster management professionals, and the general public by employing information and communications technology, analytical science, applied research, capacity building, and the open exchange of information.

PDC specialists have developed generations of multi-hazard monitoring, warning, and decision support tools to facilitate critical information sharing, supporting effective actions throughout the disaster management cycle of mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. PDC also conducts advanced risk assessments that integrate hazard exposure with socio-economic factors to define vulnerability and resilience, so the disproportionate impact of events on various populations can be better understood, and then mitigated through improved preparedness and better-informed planning processes.

As climate change drives many aspects of environment and the weather to increasingly dangerous extremes, surging populations and rapid urbanization place an increasing number of people in harm’s way, exposed to natural, technological, and human-caused hazards. So, PDC is very much needed, and is required to be a constant innovator, bringing emerging science and technology to bear on challenging disaster management problems.

United Nations agencies, national governments, relief organizations, and humanitarian assistance workers around the world make use of the Center’s products and services, and have done so for more than 20 years. Those products and services result from PDC’s broad view and positive approach to disaster management, supported by an emphasis on mitigation and preparedness, reducing the demands of response and recovery. Every item in the PDC toolbox is intended to assist in safeguarding lives, property, livelihoods, and economic development.

Staff at the emergency operations center of Indonesia’s national disaster management agency, BNPB, monitoring hazards in InAWARE, a custom iteration of PDC’s DisasterAWARE.

Staff at the emergency operations center of Indonesia’s national disaster management agency, BNPB, monitoring hazards in InAWARE, a custom iteration of PDC’s DisasterAWARE.

Early warning and decision support

For more than 20 years, PDC has been leveraging emerging technology and pursuing innovative means of providing the most detailed information about the widest range of hazards to as many stakeholders as possible. Naturally, the development of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s was vitally important, and the NCSA Mosaic browser released in 1993 – while PDC was being defined and initiated – made it possible to offer web-based hazard and disaster information via the internet. In fact, several months before officially opening the Center, PDC analysts and developers began doing that, and it is still the core activity more than 20 years later.

PDC products and services are always changing in response to both needs and possibilities and evolving to use the newest concepts, models, software, and services. Currently, the leading edge in this continuum of technology is the DisasterAWARE platform, a fully integrated, multi-hazard decision support, information exchange, and early warning system. Systems powered by DisasterAWARE have been developed in versions detailed to support users in any situation.

For the general public, there is Disaster Alert, a free-download app for iOS and Android devices, as well as the Global Hazards Atlas on www.PDC.org. Additionally, password-protected versions of DisasterAWARE are in use by disaster managers, national governments, regional intergovernmental organizations, and others. Many thousands of these users rely on the Emergency Operations (EMOPS) iteration of DisasterAWARE, which provides additional functionality and data resources for disaster management professionals.

EMOPS is a highly effective global solution to the need for a common operating picture and near real-time information/information sharing when hazards appear. In some situations, however, there is a need to include other data such as those from national hydrological and meteorological agencies, or to alter hazard severity and warning dissemination rules, or to more narrowly-define the decision making community. For these and various other reasons, custom versions of DisasterAWARE are appropriate for some.

Each customized DisasterAWARE allows that specific disaster management community to support the decision making process before, during, and after disasters. Customized adaptations of DisasterAWARE that have been deployed to-date include DisasterAWARE for NDWC Thailand (2006); VinAWARE for Vietnam (2011); Disaster Monitoring and Response System (DMRS) for ASEAN at the AHA Centre (2012); and InAWARE for Indonesia (2014). New instantiations under development include systems for Nepal and The Philippines, with others for Latin America under consideration. Generally, these custom deployments include both hazard and baseline data from relevant national agencies, and localization of the user interface to support early warning, disaster relief, and humanitarian assistance missions.

DisasterAWARE Emergency Operations (EMOPS) system on 11 July 2016 using a Google Hybrid basemap centered on the Pacific and displaying layers visualizing Earthquakes, Tropical Cyclones, and PDC Active Hazards.

DisasterAWARE Emergency Operations (EMOPS) system on 11 July 2016 using a Google Hybrid basemap centered on the Pacific and displaying layers visualizing Earthquakes, Tropical Cyclones, and PDC Active Hazards.

PDC experts support their partners with vital professional services

Hazard Modeling and Visualization. PDC experts employ a suite of modeling and visualization tools to characterize and assess hazard exposure and potential disaster impacts. While many model outputs are published within DisasterAWARE, other modeling and visualization activities are undertaken to supply exercise scenarios or to help in mitigation and preparedness actions.

  • Risk and Vulnerability Assessments (RVA). Multi-hazard assessments help to pinpoint factors that contribute to risk and vulnerability – potential losses – and identify areas where more investment may be needed, perhaps populations with special needs or places where coping capacity needs to be enhanced. Further, RVA allows authorities to more effectively choose among potential mitigation strategies the ones that will be most effective for the specific time, place, and resources.
  • Capacity Building through Training and Exercises. From full-scale, professional-level courses of study to single-subject lectures and demonstrations; from foundational knowledge to last-step “training of trainers,” PDC is an experienced and proficient training resource. PDC experts also routinely support tabletop exercises, field training exercises, and command post exercises, often using simulations that are presented through DisasterAWARE.
  • Strategic Advisory Services. Subject matter experts at PDC have worked with disaster managers in more than 60 countries. They have seen the problems faced by governments and agencies in establishing right-sized, end-user-sensitive disaster management solutions, so they are ready to assist in scaling best-practices to fit needs and to help develop roadmaps for their implementation.

PDC outcomes are achieved through working partnerships. Specialists at the Center work with stakeholders to understand gaps and needs, collaborate with a broad range of data providers to gather information, and partner with academics, scientists, and technologists to develop and implement solutions. PDC knows that both the needs and the resources – people, data, and finances – are specific to each place and situation. So, the Center cannot possibly hope for better partners in establishing disaster management best-practices for any place than the people who call that place “home.”

This commitment to the special circumstances of stakeholders has led to the development of a worldwide network of friends who have become part of PDC’s permanent and ongoing knowledge exchange.

For more information, go to www.PDC.org

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Chris Chiesa is Deputy Executive Director for PDC.