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I know that mapping plays a significant role in dealing with natural disasters, but I'm not familiar with how that works as my background is primarily web development.

I'm wondering if there is any way for GIS professionals or amateurs to contribute to the relief efforts now or as part of recovery efforts.

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There are a number of organisation that do precisely this and work with governments and emergency response groups (fire, paramedics, army etc). It is probably best that any effort be directed through such groups so that it can be efficiently coordinated. One such organisation is MapAction. MapAction contributed greatly to the relief response for Haiti disaster for instance.

Here are a couple of general articles that maybe answer the second part of your question:

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Other organizations that provide mapping/GIS/development services as part of disaster response/preparedness efforts include the American Red Cross, MercyCorps, URISA GISCorps, UNOCHA, Code for America, ESRI and Google.

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GIS is used in several ways during a disaster:

  • Mapping the extent of the event and cataloging of the search area. As buildings are checked and cleared of casualties or fatalities by the search and rescue personnel the address is mapped. The government will isolate the area with police or National Guard to prevent looting and control access to emergency personnel, utility workers and legitimate residents.
  • Estimation of damage to a structure by per cent loss and the mapping of damaged structures.
  • Estimation of total community loss of housing and businesses using tax records as a base.
  • Estimate of displaced residents or effected citizens.
  • Estimation of the amount of debris to be removed to disposal and the cost to repair and replace city infrastructure, street signs, traffic lights, schools, etc.
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In Australia a volunteer emergency GIS is the Mapping and Planning Support (MAPS) Group.

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