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U of M Professors Deliver Expertise During Flooding Crisis
By Laura Fenton

Brian Waldron and Arleen Hill stepped up to the challenge when Shelby County needed them most.

The two University of Memphis professors, who work in the Center for Partnerships in GIS (Geographic Information Systems) at the University, created the maps that were used in estimating potential areas of flooding in Shelby County. The maps were used by the Shelby County Office of Preparedness to alert residents of dangers.

Approximately 4,500 houses, apartments, businesses, industrial sites and six schools could have been affected by the time the floodwaters crested at 48 feet. 

Waldron, an assistant professor of civil engineering and director of the Center for Partnerships in GIS, and Hill, an associate professor of earth sciences, as well as a team of “five savvy people” worked almost non-stop to monitor the flood levels and release updated information. Waldron is also associate director of the U of M’s Ground Water Institute.

“It’s not just anybody [that] can sit down and do this,” said Waldron. “You have to know what you’re doing and you have to [do it] methodically and in a very straightforward manner. You don’t have time to do things wrong. It’s not a learn on the fly [thing], that’s for sure.”

Shelby County Sheriff Bill Oldham has high praise for the work done by the professors. Prior to the current maps, Oldham and his staff analyzed information themselves, but the “user-friendly” maps created by Waldron, Hill and the Center for Partnerships in GIS made the information much simpler for everyone to comprehend.

“They’re producing data sets we’ve never seen before,” Oldham said. “It [gave] us tremendous opportunity. The entire first response community [used the maps]. It [was] a tremendous asset to us.”

By using the maps, law enforcement officers pinpointed the neighborhoods and homes affected by the flooding.

“We planned around their maps for evacuations, potential rescues or numerous things,” said Shelby County Chief Deputy William Cash (BPS ’09). “It’s groundbreaking.”

Waldron and the team analyzed data collected from items such as FEMA flood levels, levee protection and elevations to create maps with markers first responders and the public understand, like ZIP codes, road names or school locations.

Maps are generated in a GIS program hosted by the U of M, a program usually used for classroom education.

The Office of Preparedness asked the U of M to assist with the current cartography project because the two also partnered to create a centralized database, which will help in future crises.

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