National and natural disasters are not strangers to Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources. Over the years many students and their faculty have assisted in fighting forest fires and cleaning up fallen trees felled by hurricanes. So it was a given that forestry professor and veteran crew boss Shep Zedaker would be sent to help clean up the Gulf region.

New on the disaster scene, however, is Virginia Tech’s Center for Geospatial Information Technology. Civil engineer associate professor Randy Dymond and geography professor Bill Carstensen, director and associate director of the center respectively, are directing a team of students in using emerging technologies to assist the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH) to develop maps and a GIS database of historical organizations in the areas affected by Hurricane Katrina.

Zedaker, one of the nation’s experts on forest fires, often goes out with the U.S. Forest Service or the Virginia Department of Forestry when a disaster occurs. This time he would have been mopping up in the Gulf with his U.S. Coast Guard group but lack of housing blocked that effort.

He left for the Gulf Coast Sept. 4 to head up a 20-man crew from the state’s Department of Forestry to help clear Ocean Shores near Biloxi, Miss., of fallen trees for two weeks. The crew is working with the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.

In cell phone calls back to Virginia he said they were working on cleaning up communities that had been submerged under 25 feet of water.

“The homes were just saturated,” Zedaker said, “and most of the residents had to leave but are gradually coming returning now that we are clearing the way. While our conditions are not great, they aren’t horrible. We are sleeping in tents on the Gulf Island National Seashore. We are exhausted after working hard all day, but at least the seawater took out the mosquitoes and it’s not extremely hot. They are using firefighting crews because their command-control communications networks are already in place and work extremely well for coordinating groups of people.”

Zedaker had started a new course this fall to teach students about forest fires and qualify them as a basic wildland firefighter because he had seen a growing need for such a course. “Wildfires burn, on average,” he noted, “more than four million acres annually in the U.S. Their damage has increased in intensity because past fire suppression policies have allowed the accumulation of fuel in the form of fallen leaves and excessive plant overgrowth.”

While Zedaker is away, retired associate dean and forestry professor Dave Smith is teaching his Survey of Forest Ecology and Management class. Meral Jackson, his senior lab specialist, is covering his labs along with teaching assistants. Because all the state’s fire experts are in Biloxi with him, his fire class has been put on hold until he returns.

On the developing technology front, which opens up new frontiers for aid in times of crises, Carstensen explained that Virginia Tech’s geospatial center will provide the American Association for State and Local History with maps to prioritize assistance to those organizations that are protecting significant U.S. historical sites and collections. “The maps,” he noted, “will accurately locate important sites and organizations that are involved in the preservation of Gulf Coastal history. We are preparing the maps here at our Center for Geospatial Information Technology as a service to the AASLH.”

Dymond, director of the geospatial center who has put out a call to assist in the relief efforts, said, “We welcome more volunteer work in the Katrina aftermath. We have some good capabilities and want to be useful to help in any way we can.”

AASLH, headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee, provides leadership service and support for its member groups, which preserve and interpret state and local history in order to make the past more meaningful in American Society.

Dymond, who heads up (CGIT), said, “Virginia Tech’s Center for Geospatial Information Technology develops cutting edge geospatial information technology tools and provides expertise in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and Global Positioning Systems (GPS) applications research to the state, nation, and world. We look for innovative approaches to solve a problem integrating geospatial data and tools.”

Katrina relief groups who can benefit from geospatial technologies should contact Randy Dymond, (540)231-9023, or Bill Carstensen, (540) 231-2600,

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