Written by Petty Officer 2nd Class Lauren Laughlin
Cadets at the Coast Guard Academy have a lot on their plate. They have to take at least 15 credit hours a semester, participate in athletics, clubs, societies, attend lectures, conduct military training and mentor lower classmen.
First Class Cadet Evan Twarog, from Keene, New Hampshire, does even more. He is a member of the Adventure Club, trilithon team, a cyclist and certified emergency medical technician basic who volunteers at Coast Guard Academy events. He is also a member of the Alpha Lambda Delta Honor Society. Yet, even though he is an electrical engineering major in the engineering department with a full class load, he enrolled in the introduction to geospatial science class in the science department taught by Lt. Chris Verlinden.
“I enjoyed taking this class with Lt. Verlinden,” said Twarog. “It helped set me on the path to crisis mapping and laid a foundation for the work we were able to do during the hurricanes.”
The geospatial science program aims to introduce future Coast Guard decision makers to theory and use of geospatial technologies for emergency planning and response, facilities management and operational resources management and decision making.
Through his own initiative to learn more about geospatial science and geographic information systems, Twarog learned about crisis mapping and how it can help during emergencies.
Crisis mapping is the real-time gathering, display and analysis of data during a crisis, usually a natural disaster or social/political conflict.
Crisis mapping projects usually allows large numbers of people, including the public and crisis responders, to contribute information either remotely or from the site of the crisis. One benefit of the crisis mapping method over others is that it can increase situational awareness, since the public can report information and improve data management.
Twarog began working on taking posts from social media asking for help during an emergency and placing them on a map to give responders a location to search.
“The problem is that when you have 10,000 911 calls coming in at once, it’s going to get bogged down,” Twarog said. “If you’re on hold with 911 for four to six hours, you’re going to lose hope. Then the question is, where are you going to turn next? And that’s going to be Facebook or Twitter.”
On Aug. 25, 2017, Hurricane Harvey, a category four hurricane, made landfall, lost strength and became a tropical storm.
Then, it stalled.
For four days it sat along the Texas coast, dropping more than 60 inches of rainfall, causing $125 billion in damage—the same amount caused by Katrina—and at least 68 deaths.
As the hurricane continued to flood Texas, responders had a hard time keeping up with emergency calls.
Coast Guard Lt. Megan Cook, who was part of the Hurricane Harvey incident management team at Coast Guard Sector Houston-Galveston, said in the immediate aftermath of Harvey hitting land, Coast Guard communications were limited — and when the phones were working, the calls for help did not stop.
Twarog and Cadet First Class Gabrielle Auzenbergs began working with two nonprofits, Standby Task
Force and Humanity Road to help Harvey responders.
Volunteers with the two companies would spend countless hours every day combing through thousands of social media posts for people who needed help.
“There are people from all over the world looking at social media and trying to help,” said Twarog. “People generally want to help. This program gives them the opportunity to help from their homes.”
The majority of the posts are from people in need of rescue. The posts include information such as exact addresses, the number of people in need of rescue and a description of the situation. The volunteers look for specific words such as #Harvey and #Rescue.
Then the posts would be entered into a combined data spreadsheet with the posters location. The volunteers keep track of everyone who has been rescued and continuously update the list.
Twarog and Auzenbergs would then use their knowledge of geospatial science and geographic information systems to map out where people needed help. The map would then be sent to the responders in Texas.
“It is not an exact science,” said Twarog. “The responders do not go address to address, but the map tells them which neighborhoods have the largest number of emergencies.”
“The list of people needing help can be pretty scary,” said Twarog. “One case that stayed with me was of a 3-year-old girl on a ventilator with no power in a flooded home. The girl’s mother had been on hold for hours with emergency response services. Her social media post was shared hundreds of times and they were rescued a few hours later.”
It takes about 10 minutes to create the maps from the information and about 45 minutes to conduct the update. Twarog also helped comb through the information and taught other cadets how to help.
Twarog did this for seven days straight for Harvey and five days for Irma on top of all his Academy school and military work. He also helped with crisis mapping during Hurricane Maria.
Since the 2017 hurricane season, Twarog has helped set up the Coast Guard Academy Digital Humanitarian Club. He teaches others how they can help with crisis mapping during emergencies. He also works with nonprofits to develop crisis mapping in other ways such as to map open shelters, evacuation routes and other recovery operations.
Twarog gave a TEDx Talk at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, about crisis mapping called Searching for the Pulse of Technology.
TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience. At a TEDx event, video and live speakers combine to spark deep discussion and connection in a small group.
As the 2018 hurricane season started, other cadets had become interested in helping. About 100 cadets showed up to help during Florence’s tour of the East Coast.
“It is amazing to see so many people wanting to help,” said Twarog. “They gave up their free time to help.”
Now that that the 2018 hurricane season is over, Twarog has been able to get back to his school work at the Academy and focus on his capstone project of using quadcopters for use in confined space gas monitoring.
“I want to explore emerging technology for use in the Coast Guard,” said Twarog. “How can we best utilize new technology for existing problems?”