S.C. Sea Grant Consortium

Coastal Heritage Magazine

You Are Here: New Horizons for Geography

In recent years, researchers have described the importance of geography in our daily lives. Where we live, geographers say, profoundly affects how we live. Now a growing number of government planners are using new geographic tools to manage development, conserve natural resources, and protect lives and property during hurricanes and other natural disasters.

A police chief speaks into a walkie talkie in front of a line of people at a store.

Taking Charge. Soon after Hurricane Hugo struck in 1989, Charleston police chief Reuben Greenberg helped to organize dissemination of food, water, and other aid to storm victims. Photo by Wade Spees.

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Coastal Heritage Magazine

Volume 13 – Number 3
Winter 1998-1999

John H. Tibbetts

You Are Here: New Horizons for Geography

The storm’s destruction was breathtaking, even shocking leathery emergency veterans. In August 1992, Hurricane Andrew ripped across south Dade County, Florida, destroying 63,000 homes and damaging another 110,000, leaving 250,000 homeless. “It looked like a nuclear event” that obliterated buildings for miles, says Erle S. Peterson, recovery coordinator for Miami-Dade County Office of Emergency Management.

Peterson was among the first officials to pick through debris in south Dade and radio damage assessments to the county command center. With this information, emergency managers could learn where people needed food, water, electricity, and shelter, estimating how much aid should be requested from state and federal agencies.

“After a disaster we have to know what’s bad out there,” says Paul Whitten, director of emergency management for Horry County. “And how really bad is bad.”

But because Andrew had knocked down street signs and battered landmarks beyond recognition, damage assessors soon became disoriented. “The whole topography had changed,” says Peterson. Trying to find their way by inadequate maps, “we didn’t have the faintest idea where we were.” Bewildered, assessors misjudged the amount of property damage, so crucial aid was delayed from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). When disaster supplies finally began pouring into South Florida, “we just didn’t have infrastructure and planning to get supplies to people. We were caught flat-footed.”



Hang on Tight. With new computer tools, researchers can simulate earthquakes and predict how ground shaking would affect structures in various communities. Photo by Wade Spees.

Similarly, after Hurricane Hugo struck South Carolina in 1989, emergency agencies at all levels were sharply criticized for bureaucratic confusion. But “Andrew and Hugo were catalysts for change,” says Peterson. “We’re older and wiser now, and we’ve gained from a massive explosion of technology in emergency management.”

One technology with great promise for disaster planning, response, and recovery is called a geographic information system (GIS). This computer-based tool is a modern extension of the ancient art and science of mapmaking.

All around us are products of computerized maps. Not long ago, if you wanted to know the temperatures of large cities, you would have read a listing of numbers in a daily newspaper.

Now, many newspapers publish maps created with computer software that show symbols for cities and their temperatures against a background of various colors—blue for cool regions of the country, brown for warm areas, and red for hot—so you can visualize weather patterns. Other layers of information such as precipitation, storm activity, and pressure systems are also layered on the weather map.


Destination Critical. Minutes can make the difference between life and death. Some communities use GIS technology to help emergency personnel find locations faster. Photo by Wade Spees.

In this way, GIS maps are like transparencies in older encyclopedias, which allowed you to layer images of the skeleton, the nervous system, and organs over a “base map” of the human body.

But GIS goes far beyond that, allowing skilled users to sort, catalog, analyze, and manipulate mind-boggling amounts of information—to crunch numbers—and then view statistical analyses in visual terms.

Thus analysts have a powerful, sophisticated technology to perform higher mathematics as they study relationships between people and their environment, asking questions that form the backbone of geography. “Why is x located here and not there? How can we explain certain patterns?” says Susan Cutter, geographer and director of University of South Carolina’s Hazards Research Laboratory. In other words, how does location matter?

Today, governments use this tool for land-use planning and natural-resource management. Medical researchers employ it to study patterns of infectious diseases, learning why some illnesses occur in greater frequency in some locations.

Many businesses use GIS to examine where certain characteristics—age, sex, income, race, household size, spending patterns—overlap. With these data, they can create sophisticated profiles of communities to improve product marketing. Other businesses study computer maps to find available commercial or industrial sites for sale, searching computer databases for information about nearest competitors, access to transportation, and potential customers.

Computer-based mapping allows a growing number of businesses to keep track of their inventories and guide delivery trucks through city streets. On the Internet, numerous servers can provide detailed directions to any address in the United States, with estimates of time to travel by car.


I Know it’s Here Somewhere. Huge amounts of disaster-relief supplies poured into South Carolina after Hurricane Hugo. But due to logistical tangles, supplies often did not reach people who needed them, as shown here outside the old McClellanville Public School. Now some localities plan to use sophisticated computer tools to steer aid through the chaos after a disaster. Photo by Wade Spees, the Post and Courier.

Now emergency managers are learning these techniques to cope with disasters. For example, Miami-Dade County’s emergency managers plan to exploit GIS to steer damage assessors and disaster supplies through the maze of confusion after a hurricane.

Following a disaster, technicians would print precise, detailed maps that each assessor would carry into the field, along with a small Global Positioning System (GPS) unit. The GPS unit provides location coordinates by satellite. If assessors get lost, they can radio the command center with their coordinates and ask for their location on GIS maps. Thus guided through chaos, they can quickly give damage estimates to emergency managers so help can be hurried to where it’s needed most.

Paul Whitten of Horry County envies Miami-Dade’s new capability. “Without a doubt, we need that technology,” he says. “If I lose a major bridge, I’ll have the most recent information on a GIS map about which roads are clear, so I can reroute emergency vehicles.”


Once it was a rich man’s technology. In the 1980s, you needed a main frame computer to store data used by GIS software. An entire system would cost $120,000; now it can cost less than $3,000. And current PCs are faster than a mainframe of a decade ago, so a GIS can be used far more efficiently.

In the early years of the GIS industry, there was a dramatic shortage of accurate data because few had gathered it in digital form. But with recent advances in computer scanners and other tools, data can be digitally stored more quickly, and the quality of information has improved. Today, numerous firms sell electronic data about water lines, sewer, roads, road signs, fire hydrants, telephone lines, cellular towers . . . the list goes on and on.

Instead of shortages of data, many localities struggle to keep up with a Niagara Falls of information, according to David Karinshak of the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments. Some county tax assessors, for example, can provide up to 1,200 pieces of data for every single property parcel. Multiply 1,200 by the number of parcels in a county, and you can imagine the size of local databases.

After crunching numbers with GIS applications, researchers and analysts must still find ways to explain their work. “We handle enormous amounts of information with computers now,” says David Rosowsky, Clemson University civil engineer. “But we still need a way to display it.”

In most cases, skilled users of GIS display their statistical results through maps. In fact, cartography—mapmaking—is at the heart of the discipline. “Many people who use GIS are interested in the analysis of data,” says Ted Steinke, University of South Carolina geographer. “But the analysis is almost always boiled down to a map or other graphic representation.”

Maps, though, provide ample opportunities for confusion. To squeeze a three-dimensional planet onto a flat piece of paper, cartographers use techniques called projections. Projections stretch some distances and shorten others, and distort the apparent size of geographic areas. Mapmakers use various projections depending on a map’s purpose. One projection expands distance between points here and not there; another shortens there and not here.

A diagram showing map layers coming together to form a composite map.

Getting the Big Picture. With a geographic information system (GIS), researchers can layer various sets of information—land use, geology, groundwater, and other resources—to analyze the relationships between people and the environment.

A dozen map databases, created with a dozen different projections, do not readily fit together when layered on a GIS. To make sense of all these maps—and information attached to them—someone must manipulate the projections, a time-consuming job. “You have to go through a lot of work to get an accurate map,” says Cutter. “It can take a year of work just to calibrate it.”

Many electronic databases include information from older paper maps, which are outdated or inaccurate. Often no one has “field tested” information about points and lines on older maps that represent buildings and roads; that is, no one actually traveled to the site and checked whether those buildings and roads were still there.

Electronic “[m]aps based on electronic data files can be highly erroneous, especially when several sources contributed the data and the user or compiler lacked the time or interest to verify their accuracy,” notes Syracuse University geographer Mark Monmonier in his 1996 book How to Lie with Maps.

So it’s clear that you need cartographic knowledge for many GIS applications. “Some thought GIS would become so easy to use that anyone could do it,” says Tony LaVoi, senior GIS analyst with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Coastal Services Center. “In many contexts, this technology still requires a dedicated user, someone who spends virtually full-time at it.”

Mapping Damage

Disaster officials will benefit from GIS, but it could take several years. While urban and regional planners rely heavily on these tools, local emergency managers have remained out of the technology loop. That’s because local hazard officials, trained in police and fire departments, generally lack technical backgrounds. “Most are not very computer-proficient,” says Sandy Ward, hazard program manager with the NOAA Coastal Services Center.

With limited manpower and funds, local hazard officials are often wary of fancy new technologies. Indeed, it can be costly to establish GIS programs, requiring investments in technical personnel and computer hardware and software. And once localities buy equipment and hire people, vast amounts of data must still be purchased and maintained.

Applications for emergency management do not come with a new computer and GIS software; they have to be created. While “there is a lot of potential for this tool, it has been slow in taking hold,” says Ward.

Even so, some localities are eagerly searching for GIS programs they could handle with a minimum of trouble and expense. That’s why Sea Grant researchers David Rosowsky and Peter Sparks, civil engineers at Clemson University, are developing a user-friendly computer application to predict hurricane wind speed and expected damage.

In the first phase of their project, Rosowsky and Sparks are studying storms that struck South Carolina over the past century. With this information, they have created a computer simulation model that could be used to predict the geographic extent and intensity of future hurricanes in the state. Rosowsky and Sparks have compared their model’s simulated wind speeds with actual wind speeds of Hugo, Andrew, Opal, Fran, Bertha, Bonnie, and Earl. These comparisons help the researchers fine-tune the model.

In the second phase, the researchers will add a feature to estimate storm damage as a hurricane approaches landfall. The damage estimates would be based on tracking data supplied by reconnaissance aircraft and ocean buoys, the researchers’ computer models of past storms, and property loss records from insurance companies.


On the Edge. State and federal agencies continue to refine computer technologies that can predict damage to developed coastlines before a hurricane strikes. Photo by Wade Spees.

If all goes well, by 1999 localities could study a GIS map that shows various expected wind speeds and insurance losses from a given storm provided 24 hours in advance of a hurricane’s landfall. As the storm approaches the coast, the model would continue updating information. “It could show what you’d expect from a storm in your town, in terms you could understand,” says Rosowsky.

Emergency managers could use this program before a storm strikes to help position disaster resources. On GIS maps, officials could see how many people and structures would be affected, so they could better locate staging areas where supplies could be stored and disseminated.

But the model would be especially valuable as a planning tool, allowing you to play educational “what-if games,” says Rosowsky. With this application, you could model how past southeastern storms would affect communities today. For example, you could examine the amount and location of property damage in Beaufort if a Hugo-type storm struck there. You could estimate the dollar amount of damage in Charleston if Hugo’s greatest winds had struck downtown instead of 30 miles north, as it did in 1989. Or you could learn about probable impacts of a Hurricane Fran, which battered Wilmington in 1996, if it had hit Myrtle Beach head on instead.

Eventually, though, users wouldn’t need GIS software to view such damage estimates. Instead, researchers say, you could log onto the Internet and click on a map showing a hurricane’s projected impacts to a town or neighborhood.


Finding Our Way Home

Increasing sprawl has brought a growing network of roadways to the South Carolina coast. With the help of new computer tools, some municipalities are learning how to protect water quality by reducing the amount of paved surfaces.

For generations, explorers returned home with accounts of lands beyond the horizon. With this information, maps were created of wild areas, noting the location of herds of game, ore deposits, and other riches with the sole aim of exploiting them.

“In the nineteenth century, maps were published in order to reveal resources that could be utilized and to indicate possible supporting transport links,” writes British historian Jeremy Black in his 1997 book Maps and Politics.

Today a new generation of cartographers, using a technology called a geographic information system (GIS), are helping us to understand our relationship to our environment in new ways. Maps are made not just to exploit resources but to protect them as well.

“In the past, maps were usually created so you could find your way around a place you’d probably never seen before,” says Daniel Morgan, GIS manager for Beaufort County. Now, just as often, maps are being made about our home ground.

A growing number of community planners are using GIS maps to manage development and its impacts on natural resources. With this technology, planners are creating maps that identify undeveloped land, properties under conservation easements, public utilities in the area, topography, and recent population growth and other demographic patterns. Indeed, many communities now have detailed land-use maps with information about each property parcel.

Beaufort County officials used GIS extensively when the county’s comprehensive plan was being revised in 1998. The new technology allowed planners to analyze land-use trends and then communicate their findings to elected officials. “GIS maps were invaluable,” says Tom Wilson, acting director of the Beaufort County Planning Office.

Heavy traffic.

“A lot of times, planners haven’t really known what’s out there in a community,” says Morgan. But with GIS, community leaders can more easily see trends, so localities can plan development more wisely.

GIS can also help reduce conflicts between developers and regulators. In Massachusetts, the entire state, including its wetlands and other fragile resources, is detailed on GIS maps. Now, “with fewer surprises in the development process, regulators are less likely to step in late, once a project is underway, and say, ‘Oops, you can’t develop here,’” says R.J. Lyman, a Boston attorney and former assistant secretary for environmental impact review at the Massachusetts Office of Environmental Affairs.

Now the S.C. Sea Grant Extension Program is establishing a partnership with the Waccamaw Regional Planning and Development Council to use GIS in educating local leaders on methods of reducing nonpoint pollution.

As paved surfaces cover the coastal plain, communities will face increasingly diminished water quality unless urban development patterns are changed. To improve water quality, local planners should consider some land-use techniques that would reduce the amount of roads and parking lots, experts say.

Damaged water quality is found when paved surfaces cover 10 to 20% of a watershed’s land area, according to Anne Marie Johnson, nonpoint source education coordinator at the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. At that point, paved surfaces increase the degree of flooding and runoff pollution, including sediments, bacteria, and toxic substances into waterways. Nationwide, 40 to 80% of land in urbanized communities is covered by pavement, says Johnson.

Under a new program called Nonpoint Education for Municipal Officials (NEMO), elected and appointed officials learn how differing land-use techniques can reduce the amount of paved and hardened areas—or impervious surfaces—such as roads, parking lots, and bridges. Higher percentages of paved surfaces in a watershed usually increase the degree of flooding and runoff pollution.

For each watershed, NEMO will design a GIS map to show current amounts of paved surfaces. Additional maps will show future amounts of paved surfaces as a community grows under various planning strategies and densities. These maps allow communities to learn about how differing development scenarios would affect waterways.

“In the NEMO program, GIS is used to show local decision makers how their present zoning will lead to increases in impervious surfaces,” says Denver Merrill, Community Development Specialist with the S.C. Sea Grant Extension Program. “Then GIS can show how water bodies can be degraded due to this increase.”

A program first developed by Connecticut Sea Grant and the University of Connecticut Cooperative Extension system, NEMO shows localities that they can protect water resources and community character if they plan appropriately. The NEMO team advises a three-part strategy: natural resource planning, innovative site design, and the use of best management practices.

To reduce degradation of waterways, local planners could consider designing a menu of land-use techniques for new developments. Under flexible ordinances, developers could be required to landscape new projects with water quality in mind.

For example, communities could require that developers add more retention ponds for stormwater, design narrower roads, build parking lots with gravel, grass, or pebbles, and install grass swales instead of concrete curbs, says Merrill.

Protection of open space can have significant impacts on water quality. If a watershed’s forests are cut down, sediments can wash into streams and creeks. If forests nears streams are cut for agriculture or vacation homes, pesticides and fertilizers spread on cropland and lawns can filter through the soil into the water table or wash directly into streams.

The S.C. Sea Grant Extension Program is working with the Waccamaw council to implement the NEMO program in Horry and Georgetown counties. Next, the Consortium will look to acquire more funding to develop the program in other counties.


Medical Geography

Over the past 150 years, physicians have increasingly mapped patterns of disease to find out whether certain illnesses are associated with “triggers” in the physical or social environment. By examining the geography of disease, researchers can sometimes find a cause of an illness. Or they learn why certain diseases seem to occur in certain places and not in others. Early in the 20th century, for example, two dentists in Colorado noticed that children living in areas with high levels of a naturally-occurring fluoride in groundwater had fewer dental cavities—a discovery that eventually led to widespread use of fluoride in drinking water.

The first medical geographer was John Snow, a London physician who illustrated the distribution of cholera cases in Soho during an epidemic in 1854. Suspecting that infected water was causing illness, he designed a map of cholera cases in the neighborhood, showing that the highest density of illness occurred in households that used the public pump on Broad Street. After he instructed authorities to remove the water pump, the number of new cholera cases plummeted.

Now researchers are using geographic information systems (GIS) to study distributions of ancient and new illnesses, from plague and malaria to AIDS. These new computer tools allow medical geographers to examine vast stores of data, broadening understanding of the factors affecting human health.

A map by John Snow, a London physician, shows the incidence of cholera deaths during the epidemic of 1854.

You Spatial Analyzer!

Let’s say you’re moving to a new town and looking for a house to buy. With the aid of maps, you find schools for your children, shopping districts, and commuting routes to work. After mulling over local conditions, you narrow down neighborhoods that you can afford and you finally choose a home.

Congratulations, you just gathered and analyzed geographic data. By scribbling notes on maps, you stored spatial information. And believe it or not, you completed two aspects of spatial analysis—finding your way through an unfamiliar place and making a siting decision. Last but not least, you used a geographic information system (GIS).

“[A] map is . . . a geographic information system— a noncomputerized, manual system, but a GIS nonetheless,” write Nancy J. Obermeyer and Jeffrey K. Pinto in their 1994 book, Managing Geographic Information Systems. The authors noted that the basic principles of geographic analysis are the same whether a researcher employs a computerized GIS or you study a paper map. In each case, a user essentially asks, “What effects will a thing’s location have on other things around it?”

Tracking Pollutants

Over the past two decades, government and industry have collected gigantic banks of electronic information on forests, rivers, wetlands, fishery populations, atmospheric currents, and other natural features of the planet. Now with computer-based geographic information systems (GIS), resource managers can track pollutants in waterways or through the atmosphere, and then show their findings with dramatic maps.

With sophisticated modeling they can show how air pollutants travel in the complex currents of the atmosphere from one region of the country to another, for example from Midwestern power plants to East Coast cities.

In more modest ways, resource managers can use GIS to do detective work on environmental problems. Let’s say that a locality has water billing information for rural neighborhoods near a fragile watershed, which is being threatened by leaking septic tanks.

The billing data would show how much water is being used monthly at each address; water usage would be roughly similar to the amount of waste flowing into a septic system. So a local government could use GIS to locate areas that may need sewer infrastructure.

Hazard Map

Local leaders may not realize who their frailest residents are or where they live. To provide such information, the University of South Carolina Department of Geography presented Georgetown County with a geographic information system (GIS) application showing a range of environmental and natural hazards in the county.

By layering a number of databases onto a GIS map, researchers could vividly show that a certain population in Georgetown County would need special help during a giant storm: lower-income, elderly people who live in mobile-home communities near waterways, many of whom don’t drive. The next time a storm threatens, the county would make it a top priority to help them evacuate, says Lewis Dugan, county director of emergency management.

Such data could be most valuable in large metropolitan areas where development is often sudden, neighborhoods change abruptly, and demographic patterns are constantly in flux.

“When you just see a bunch of numbers on a page, it’s often difficult to do something useful with them,” says Erle Peterson, emergency recovery coordinator for Miami-Dade County (Florida) Office of Emergency Management. “But if you have a tool that helps you visualize your community, you can better understand the pattern of what is vulnerable.”

Further Reading

Black, Jeremy. Maps and Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Monmonier, Mark. Cartographies of Danger: Mapping Hazards in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Monmonier, Mark. How to Lie With Maps. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Obermeyer, Nancy J. and Jeffrey K. Pinto. Managing Geographic Information Systems. New York: Guilford Press, 1994.