Interdisciplinary center puts Virginia a step ahead of natural disasters


(Left to right) Steve Prisley, Randy Dymond, and Rachael Heltz Herman in the conference room (Left to right) Steve Prisley, Randy Dymond, and Rachael Heltz Herman in the conference room

Virginia Tech's Center for Geospatial Information Technology (CGIT) is saving the state a lot of trouble and expense with several statewide projects to help keep Virginians safe from natural hazards such as flooding, hurricanes, wildfires, winter storms, and landslides.

Natural disasters in Virginia

During the past three-and-a-half decades, there have been 36 presidentially declared natural disasters statewide, of which a third took place over the past six years alone, according to the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM).

More recently, hurricanes have become an increasingly recurring and serious threat to Virginians. Between 2003 and 2004, Virginia felt the impact of seven hurricanes.

"Hazard mitigation plans and floodplain management have been two major lines of work in CGIT's project portfolio since the center was founded in 2003," said Randy Dymond, associate director at CGIT and associate professor of civil engineering at Virginia Tech.

A step ahead of natural disasters

CGIT is an interdisciplinary research center that specializes in advanced geospatial data analysis and applications, such as risk assessment, spatial analysis, decision support, and mapping.

The center's staff and affiliated faculty have expertise in infrastructure and transportation, natural resource and hazard mitigation planning, environmental management, homeland security, and wireless communications.

CGIT has worked on numerous local and regional hazard mitigation plans, intended to make Virginia communities disaster-resistant through planning before disasters such as floods, winter storms, hurricanes, and earthquakes strike.

"If you look at Virginia's recent human and material losses from floods and hurricanes alone, then you realize how important it is to prevent these losses rather than deal with the consequences," Dymond said.

CGIT worked closely with VDEM as it gathered information about the potential risks and developed hazard-mitigation strategies for various state facilities, including Virginia Tech's main campus located in Blacksburg, Va.

"We have developed profiles for each of the recorded hazards that occurred in Virginia, including information about their magnitude and impact," explained Rachael Heltz Herman, the environmental Geographic Information Systems (GIS) manager at CGIT.


A flooded parking lot on the Virginia Tech campus A flooded parking lot on the Virginia Tech campus

"Next, we evaluated vulnerabilities using special technologies such as GIS. In one instance, we located nearly 13,000 state facilities using GIS and then compared their locations with existing hazard mapping to analyze the buildings' vulnerability."

GIS is a technology that links physical features on the earth to a database of their descriptions, locations, and characteristics.

"Very simply put, GIS is a computer-enabled information system that allows users to superimpose different map layers containing a variety of information on top of each other," explains Steve Prisley, director of CGIT and associate professor of forestry.

For Virginia Tech's campus, the hazard mitigation study found that, for example, some of the buildings with the highest risk for flooding are Eggleston Hall, University Bookstore, and the Graduate Life Center at Donaldson Brown.

On a larger scale, the study concluded that Montgomery County is more prone to such hazards as fire, severe winter storms, or land subsidence than most of Virginia's counties.

Out with the old flood maps, in with the new

As new developments, roads, and parking lots are built in agricultural or forested areas, the land loses its natural ability to absorb water and thus to reduce flooding.

"Blacksburg is a good example of a growing town that is gradually losing the ability to defend against flooding naturally through pervious land uses," says Dymond.

"While we cannot eliminate flooding altogether, we can be as prepared as possible to limit its costly consequences."


Old (above) and new (below) floodplain maps Old (above) and new (below) floodplain maps

Partnering with the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, CGIT floodplain specialists are currently involved in two major projects that will give Virginia the upper hand against damaging floods.

The first of the two projects is the statewide flood Map Modernization Management Support (MMMS) initiative that was set off in 2004 by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on a national scale.

"The MMMS project has been created to help local communities transform their existing, outdated flood maps into more reliable and easier-to-use digital maps," Dymond said. "For example, the new maps will determine the areas in which to build safely, and will allow homeowners to buy flood insurance based on actual risk."

CGIT is also managing the challenging task of monitoring the flood-map modernization progress in almost 300 Virginia communities.

"We have created a MMMS website for the public about the floodplain-map modernization program," Herman said, "including information about the status of the new floodplain maps, the National Flood Insurance Program, and a local up-to-date floodplain contact database."

While the MMMS project has a predominantly managerial component, CGIT is also involved in the actual updating of the flood maps for Montgomery and Giles counties, and for the city of Radford.

"Using GIS software, we combine data from topographic surveys and hydraulic models to generate accurate flood boundaries," said Thomas Dickerson, certified floodplain manager and research assistant at CGIT. "We then compare our results with the latest aerial photography to confirm conditions on the ground."

  • For more information on this topic, contact Ana R. Constantinescu at, or (540) 231-8490.

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Facts about natural disasters in Virginia

  • Flash flooding and river flooding are Virginia's deadliest weather duo.
  • In 1993, the so-called "Storm of the Century" brought three feet of snow in western Virginia, and produced snowdrifts of up to 12 feet.
  • The ice storm of 1994 coated portions of Virginia with one to three inches of ice from freezing rain and sleet, resulting in the loss of up to 20 percent of the trees in some counties.
  • In 2003, Hurricane Isabel caused 32 deaths and almost $2 billion in damage, making it the most costly weather disaster to Virginians in the 21st century.

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