As the world’s population becomes increasingly concentrated in cities, we are witnessing the urbanization of disasters. Hurricanes Florence, Maria and Irma and recent earthquakes in Ecuador, Haiti, and Mexico all underscore urban risk. And smaller scale events like fires and floods can have disproportionately large impacts in cities given high population densities.

Fortunately, a wide range of platforms are now available for citizens and scientists to understand the vulnerability of their cities in real time as well as historically. These platforms and the real-time information they provide can inform both long-term urban planning exercises and short-term decisions for evacuations given impending disasters. What follows is a list of the top ten portals for citizen information on disasters, many of which directly impact cities.

Hurricane paths since 1850. Source: NOAA National Ocean Service

Global Platforms

  1. National Hurricane Center (NHC): The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration(NOAA) issues watches, warnings, forecasts, and analyses of hurricanes and other hazardous tropical weather. NHC shares info through its website, Twitter, over fifty different RSS feeds (including Spanish language feeds), apps, satellite imagery, radar, and GIS shapefiles. The Historical Hurricane Tracks online maps contains global hurricane data from as far back as 1851 (see here for an IDB funded hurricane path animation from 1995 to 2016). NOAA’s Digital Coast also provides additional data, tools, training, and case studies designed for coastal managers.
  2. El Niño Southern Oscillation: From the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center, this portal provides daily wind and water temperature data of the Southern Pacific Ocean and historical information going back to 1950.
  3. Surging Seas Caribbean Risk Finder: Developed by Climate Central and the IDB, this site includes maps, local sea level and flood risk projections, and potential impacts for land, population, internet infrastructure, and other variables. The portal includes most Caribbean islands, plus Suriname and Guyana, and uses Climate Central’s high-accuracy CoastalDEM elevation data.
  4. NASA Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS): provides near real-time fire data globally within three hours of satellite overpass. This platform is used by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) as one of the global operation monitoring tools.
  5. Global Sea Level Trends: This site provides sea level trends measured by tide gauges across the globe since 1992. The information is obtained from NOAA’s Laboratory for Satellite Altimetry and analyzed together with the University of Colorado’s Sea Level Research Group.

Country-specific Platforms

  1. http://www.atlasnacionalderiesgos.gob.mx/Mexico’s National Risk Atlas (Atlas Nacional de Riesgos): This site monitors earthquakes, tropical cyclones, and the Colima and Popocatépetl volcanoes. It’s based on information published by Mexico’s National Center for Disaster Prevention, the National Seismological Service, the Earth Observation Laboratory (Laboratorio de Observación de la Tierra, LANOT) and NOAA. In addition to real-time information, the site also includes visualizations that identify the degree of risk from tropical cyclones based on data from the National Center for Disaster Prevention (CENAPRED).
  2. Mexico’s National Weather Service (Servicio Metereológico Nacional, SMN): Official government agency in Mexico that monitors climatic phenomena and issues warnings for tropical Pacific and Atlantic cyclones. SMN also offers access to warning in real time through RSS feeds.
  3. Mesoamerican Regional System of Visualization and Monitoring (Sistema Regional de Visualización y Monitores de Mesoamérica, SERVIR): this site provides critical information for Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. SERVIR is an effort of NASA, USAID, Centro del Agua del Trópico Húmedo para América Latina y el Caribe (CATHALAC) and the Central American Commission for Environment and Development (CCAD).
  4. Crisis Mapping and Public Alerts from Colombia’s National Unit for Disaster Risk Management (Unidad Nacional para la Gestión del Riesgo de Desastre): These warning tools are visualized through a partnership with Google and based on information from the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM).
  5. Jamaica’s Meteorological Service: provides Weather Alerts for hurricanes, flooding, and other phenomena.

How can these portals be used to guarantee greater impact in cities?

  • Make spatial data more open and transparent: antiquated protocols still hamper the sharing of disaster vulnerability maps in cities. Increasingly, countries are approving policies to make spatial data more open, such as in Chile, which passed ambitious protocols to put spatial data online and to allow for greater sharing of maps among ministries and the public. During disasters, access to spatial data is especially critical. Public apps and crowdsourced data like those provided by Esri’s disaster response program and the volunteers of GIS Corps can increase the speed and breadth of emergency response in cities.
  • Use vulnerability mapping to enhance urban planning: As the strength of hurricanes and the scale of flooding increases, city governments are rewriting zoning and building codes to protect their residents from future disasters. The IDB regularly supports coastal inundation mapping and scenarios to help city officials and residents assess their vulnerabilities. Additional work is needed to give planners in permitting offices increased access to such maps when discussing proposed developments, especially those in vulnerable coastal zones (see A Blue Urban Agenda: Adapting to Climate Change in the Coastal Cities).
  • Support early warning systems that leverage city data: municipalities collect a wide range of data that could be utilized to better prepare citizens for disasters. Metro Medellín’s Early Warning System (Sistema de Alerta Temprana de Medellín y el Valle de Aburrá) provides an excellent model, integrating data from over 100 sensors from different types of networks—precipitation data, soil moisture, weather surveillance radar (WSR), seismographs, air quality sensors, and river level monitoring—to measure risk in real-time. Similar smart city management approaches have been integrated into the designs of recent IDB operations in the Brazilian cities of João Pessoa and Vitória. The next generation of platforms could provide better synergies between local early warning systems and national meteorological data.

Together, such an agenda will help translate a critical element of the IDB’s Urban Development and Housing Policy:  “to reduce the urban population’s vulnerability to disasters.” According to a recent survey of 226 cities in Latin America and the Caribbean, only 3% of city governments have risk management departments and only 4% have early warning systems. Now is the time to act.


Edition: Andreina Seijas and Pauline Claramunt Torche


Cover Image: iss056e162821 (Sept. 14, 2018) — Hurricane Florence is pictured from the International Space Station as a category 1 storm as it was making landfall near Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. Photo by NASA/NOAA