NASA’s Earth Science Enterprise sent a remote-sensing
scientist to New York following the events of Sept. 11 to aid
the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in the
disaster recovery efforts. Using advanced technologies it has
developed for observations of Earth, NASA was able to provide
imagery that was used by emergency managers to identify
dangerous areas of the site and determine the material
composition of the wreckage.

“FEMA asked NASA to provide technical assistance in the use
of remote-sensing technology to assist response teams working
at New York’s World Trade Center. NASA also gave the city
expert advice on how to obtain needed technology and imagery
commercially and from other government sources,” said Dr.
Ghassem Asrar, Associate Administrator for Earth Sciences,
NASA Headquarters, Washington.

NASA Headquarters asked Dr. Bruce Davis of its Stennis Space
Center, Stennis, Miss., to act as a technical consultant to
NASA’s Northeast Regional Applications Center, in Auburn,
N.Y., in providing visualizations of the affected area for
the governor’s office. Shortly after his arrival, Davis was
asked to come to New York City to provide remote-sensing
technical assistance to FEMA.

“Our Stennis program’s strongest asset was the ability to
communicate with the disaster response community; determine
the information-product requirements; and translate those
requirements into technical specifications that could be met
by commercial or other government-agency providers. Where
information products were not available, we developed a
‘tiger team’ at Stennis to create information tailored to
needs in the recovery efforts for the Sept. 11 disaster,”
Davis said.

Some of the questions Davis and his NASA team were able to
answer for FEMA included:

* Would oblique photography help? How could such near-real-
time imagery be used to locate buried structures like
stairwells, or estimate the volume of the debris pile?

* Why do airborne-laser data collected have so many
anomalies, and what causes them?

Is it possible to get high-resolution images that penetrate
the smoke?

* Are there remote sensing technologies that can detect
underground voids?

* Is it possible to obtain accurate, near-real-time thermal
data that identify where hot spots are?

The NASA team also was able to recommend changes in how the
thermal imagery being collected was processed to improve its
accuracy, and the group developed an algorithm for
calculating the extent of the debris pile that was simple and
efficient enough to be run every day following the attack.

“Technical information provided by NASA made a real
difference in how remote sensing was used during the disaster
response. The real value is that FEMA gained a wealth of
knowledge from NASA that FEMA will have at its disposal from
now on,” said Asrar.

“This event illustrates how NASA’s investment in Earth-
science applications and America’s investment in the space
program can pay off in emergency response situations,” said
Davis. “NASA is putting in place an Earth science program
that will leverage science, technology and applications to
address real issues of community and national concern.”

NASA’s Earth Science Enterprise is a long-term research
effort that investigates how natural and human-induced
changes affect our global environment.