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U of M Professors Deliver Expertise During Flooding Crisis

By Laura Fenton

Brian Waldron and Arleen Hill stepped up to the challenge when Shelby County needed them most.

The two University of Memphis professors, who work in the Center for Partnerships in GIS (Geographic Information Systems) at the University, created the maps that are estimating potential areas of flooding in Shelby County. The maps are being used by the Shelby County Office of Preparedness to alert residents of dangers.

Approximately 4,500 houses, apartments, businesses, industrial sites and six schools could have been affected by the time the floodwaters crested at 48 feet on May 10.  

Waldron, an assistant professor of civil engineering and director of the Center for Partnerships in GIS, and Hill, an associate professor of earth sciences, as well as a team of “five savvy people” have worked almost non-stop to monitor the flood levels and release updated information. Waldron is also associate director of the U of M’s Ground Water Institute.

“It’s not just anybody [that] can sit down and do this,” said Waldron. “You have to know what you’re doing and you have to [do it] methodically and in a very straightforward manner. You don’t have time to do things wrong. It’s not a learn on the fly [thing], that’s for sure.”

Shelby County Sheriff Bill Oldham has high praise for the work done by the professors. Prior to the current maps, Oldham and his staff analyzed information themselves, but the “user-friendly” maps created by Waldron, Hill and the Center for Partnerships in GIS now make the information much simpler for everyone to comprehend.

“They’re producing data sets we’ve never seen before,” Oldham said. “It’s going to give us tremendous opportunity. The entire first response community [is using the maps] for this event, as well as it is giving us the tools for future events. It’s been a tremendous asset to us.”

By using the maps, law enforcement officers have pinpointed the neighborhoods and homes affected by the flooding.

“We’ve planned around their maps for evacuations, potential rescues or numerous things that go along with this type of event,” said Shelby County Chief Deputy William Cash (BPS ’09). “It’s groundbreaking.”

Waldron and the team analyze data collected from items such as FEMA flood levels, levee protection and elevations to create maps with markers first responders and the public understand, like ZIP codes, road names or school locations.

Maps are generated in a GIS program hosted by the U of M, a program usually used for classroom education.

The Office of Preparedness asked the U of M to assist with the current cartography project because the two will partner later this month to create a centralized database, which will help in future crises.

“The goal is, over time, when the data sets are all available, that they will be able to conduct analyses with the data and with training over the next few years and then not need us,” Hill said.

Now the professors are working twice as hard to assist in the current floodwater level monitoring while also preparing data to coordinate for the future platform.

“We’re still meeting [the original] goal, we’re just doing it more actively,” Hill said.

If your area becomes flooded, it is recommended to take a disaster kit with you as well as important documents, records, medicine and other important items. Avoid coming in contact with the floodwaters as sewage and other containments may seep into the water, which could cause illness or infections.

Shelby County law enforcement officers have increased patrols in evacuated areas by 100 percent to maintain safety and deter looters.

Shelters operated by the Shelby County Office of Preparedness are located at Hope Presbyterian Church at 8500 Walnut Grove Road, Cummings Street Baptist Church at 250 East Raines and Millington Civic Center at 8077 Wilkinsville Road.

For more information or to view flood maps, visit www.staysafeshelby.us, or email staysafeshelby@gmail.com. For those without Internet service, information is also available at the 24-Hour Flood Watch Hotline by calling 324-8799 or text messaging 290-7530.

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Last Updated: 1/23/12