Research identifies risks from natural hazards

Floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and wildfires are a few examples of the natural hazards that impact Virginia every year. These hazards pose a threat to human life, societal function, and can cause millions of dollars in property damages in a single year.


Damage from tornadoes in Suffolk, Va. Tornadoes caused major damage in Suffolk, Va., in April 2008.

The Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM) organizes efforts to protect the public, coordinating disaster preparedness, mitigation, response, and recovery. The Virginia Tech Center for Geospatial Information Technology (CGIT) has recently completed work with VDEM to produce the latest revision to the 2010 Virginia Standard and Enhanced Hazard Mitigation Plan.

Mandated by the National Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000, the hazard mitigation plan serves to identify and profile natural hazards throughout the commonwealth and suggests strategies to help limit their impact. The plan is required in order for states to qualify for various types of hazard mitigation grant funds.


Map of tornado touchdowns in Virginia since 1950. This map, created for the Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment portion of the hazard mitigation plan, identifies historic tornado touchdowns and tracks between 1950 and 2006. This data is used to ascertain future risk of tornados across Virginia.

Most of CGIT’s work involves the Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment (HIRA) portion of the hazard mitigation plan, which provides the factual basis upon which mitigation strategies are founded. The HIRA identifies natural hazards applicable to Virginia, quantifies their relative significance, and determines which parts of the state are at greater risk. In addition, the HIRA identifies state owned/operated facilities and other critical facilities that are at risk.

To provide the basis for mitigation strategies, CGIT investigated and compiled data in a variety of natural hazard subject areas. Some of this data already existed in a geospatial format that was used directly in the plan. However, some of the required data only existed in pieces, or not in a geospatial format at all. This non-geospatial data included tables of historical occurrences, which were analyzed to determine overall trends in probability and severity across the state.

'New ways' to look at existing problems

As a center of research at Virginia Tech made up of research staff, graduate students and student interns, CGIT continues to offer broad GIS expertise and perspective to the planning process.

Graduate assistants and interns at CGIT have a distinct advantage in particular. These individuals possess unique perspectives, fresh creativity, and often challenge preexisting ideas. “Our students provide new ways to look at these old problems. Together we move ahead, beyond what we knew before,” said Thomas Dickerson, project associate at CGIT.


Thomas Dickerson at CGIT Thomas Dickerson, project associate at CGIT, views hazard data that he and his fellow researchers have compiled for the Virginia Standard and Enhanced Hazard Mitigation Plan.

Through the use of advanced geospatial information systems, CGIT researchers are able to take complex data from various sources and make sense of it. This information can then be used to correlate risks and their impact on the state. This approach delves into each subject area to ensure that the most relevant sources are being utilized.

“In working with various researchers on campus, we are continually challenging ourselves to consider totally different data sources and bring them together into a geospatial environment,” Dickerson said. “We can look at them on a map, virtual globe, and share this information broadly.

Safety, security, and community resilience

In addition to its work with hazard mitigation, the center can also provide geospatial tools and resources for safety, security, and community resilience. Under the leadership of Brenda van Gelder, director of converged technologies for security, safety and resilience; and CGIT co-directors Peter Sforza and Kitty Hancock, a number of tools have been developed related to cyber-security, safe routing, night-time lighting, and disaster response. These efforts include local, state, and international resources.

On the local scale, CGIT and the 3-D Blacksburg Collaborative are developing a virtual globe map of the Virginia Tech campus, which includes 3-D renderings of buildings and trees. Safety and converged security, emergency management, threat assessment, accessibility, and many other critical-use cases can utilize an array of geospatial tools and processes to leverage the data infrastructure and information model.


True 3-D GIS CGIT is developing geospatial tools and resources for safety, security, and community resilience. This demonstration of true 3-D GIS analytical tools developed by CGIT allows for complex viewshed scenarios and simulations.

CGIT is also active on an international scale through a newly established connection with the International Charter Space and Major Disasters, a collaboration among space agencies from around the world. Sforza has recently joined the charter’s network of project managers.

To manage large disasters, the charter makes use of data collected by orbiting space satellites, promoting cooperation among space agencies to support humanitarian relief efforts around the world. “When disasters such as the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, and Tropical Storm Hubert in Madagascar take place, charter member agencies supply important information about these events’ impact and scope,” Sforza said.

Project managers, including Sforza, are trained to handle the distribution and processing of images and information needed by end users assisting in response work. This group is made up of remote sensing and emergency management experts from emergency operations centers, universities, other government agencies, United Nations agencies, and volunteer organizations.

“Virginia Tech’s research community will have a greater role in disaster response efforts as a result of this involvement, thus helping emergency managers worldwide deal with a variety of natural and man-made disasters in Virginia and beyond,” Sforza said.

  • For more information on this topic, contact Patrick Fay at (540) 231-8490.

Federally declared disasters in Virginia

An important source for identifying hazards that can affect the commonwealth is the record of federal disaster declarations. Below is a brief summary of selected declared disasters:

  • Hurricane Camille in 1969: The second-most intense hurricane ever to hit the United States, Camille made landfall out of the Gulf of Mexico as a Category 5 hurricane and weakened to a tropical depression before reaching Virginia. More than 27 inches fell in Nelson County and more than 10 inches of rainfall was measured in the area from Lynchburg to Charlottesville. The storm was blamed for 259 deaths and $8.8 billion in damages in Virginia and West Virginia.
  • Super Tornado Outbreak in 1974: This was the worst tornado outbreak in American history, generating the most tornadoes in a 24-hour period. Several states were struck with 148 observed tornadoes, killing 315 people and injuring thousands more.
  • Ice Storm of 1994. This winter storm coated portions of Virginia with 1 to 3 inches of ice from freezing rain and sleet. Prolonged power outages, blocked roads, automobile accidents and injuries from people falling on ice were reported. Damages were estimated at $61 million.
  • Wildfires of 1999. A total of 1,749 fires burned 12,118 acres, considerably exceeding the five-year annual average of 1,320 fires and 6,081 acres. The Purgatory Mountain Fire in Botetourt County, one of the largest fires of the year, burned 1,285 acres and cost more than $166,000 to contain.

Are you prepared for an emergency?

Ready Virginia is a statewide public education effort to prepare Virginians for all hazards, including natural disasters and potential terrorist attacks. Virginians are encouraged to do three things to prepare for emergencies:

Learn more at the Ready Virginia website.

Share this


Spotlight Archive

Look through previous Spotlight stories

Access the archives