The Shareholder Online The alumni magazine of Auburn University’s Raymond J. Harbert College of Business

Responding to super storms: Harbert College researcher identifies infrastructure recovery solutions

Professor Chetan Sankar investigates the ways in which GPS and RFID technology can aid local governments and utilities companies in restoring services after disasters.

When Hurricane Katrina tore through Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005, leaving behind a trail of destruction that included 1,200 deaths and $75 billion in damages, it sent a clear message to residents in Alabama’s coastal communities.

It could happen to you.

Chetan S. Sankar, COB Advisory Council Professor of Information Systems in the Raymond J. Harbert College of Business, wants Alabama’s coastal communities to be well-prepared to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of super storms and other potentially devastating events. His recent collaboration with survey marker manufacturer Berntsen International, Riviera Utilities and the City of Gulf Shores, Ala., identified ways in which cities can recover critical infrastructure components in the wake of disasters.

Their resulting research, “Critical Role of IT in Improving Disaster Management by Digitizing Utility Facility Objects (DUFOs),” earned the Best Paper Award from the Society for Information Management by identifying solutions to problems that have plagued previous infrastructure recovery efforts in storm-ravaged communities. Sankar worked with Bill Rushing, Vice President of Research and Development for Berntsen International, Corley Lauderdale, Utilities and Engineering Supervisor for Riviera Utilities and Steve Henderson of the City of Gulf Shores’ Information Technology Division.

Sankar advocates the creation of “smart, IT-enabled” infrastructures that allow city officials to quickly locate and repair electric, water, natural gas and communications facilities. In September, Sankar and a group of students from Auburn University’s Geospatial Research and Applications Center tested the effectiveness of Global Positioning System (GPS) and RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) technologies in locating and obtaining information from utilities structures.

“The exciting part was to get our students involved in it,” said Sankar, founder and director of the Geospatial Research and Applications Center. “We can be second responders. The cities [involved in the research] have asked me if we can get our students trained so that, if there is a hurricane, they can come and help.

Hurricane Sandy left devastation in its wake on the Atlantic Coast, leaving utilities crews and municipal officials to deal with downed power lines and broken water and gas mains. Credit: Leonard Zhukovsky/

Hurricane Sandy left devastation in its wake on the Atlantic Coast, leaving utilities crews and municipal officials to deal with downed power lines and broken water and gas mains. Credit: Leonard Zhukovsky/

“Sometimes, in classes, students are not challenged. They are going to use all of this to solve a problem.”

It’s a problem that remains very real for Gulf Coast and Atlantic states due to warmer ocean temperatures and rising sea levels. As The Economist reported in its June 2013 story, “You’re going to get wet,” these factors have transformed hurricanes from “a seasonal annoyance into an existential threat.”

The increased frequency and severity of these threats ramps up the urgency for utility companies and local governmental agencies to craft comprehensive response plans. One of the more daunting issues for them involves locating utility facilities that have been obscured by mountains of sand, tree limbs, toppled cars and fallen structures. A worker armed with a GPS device might be able to get within a 2- to 4-foot radius of a hidden cable, manhole cover or water main, but close isn’t good enough when heavy machinery is being used to remove obstacles.

“Accidental damage to utilities buried by storm displaced sand has been a major problem for our utilities that slows the recovery process,” Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft stated in the research paper.

The “smart, IT-enabled” infrastructure Sankar envisions employs a blend of technological tools – GPS, RFID tags, smart phones and tablets. In 2012, 51 students from an introductory Management Information Systems class were asked to locate targets buried at various depths on a Gulf Shores beachfront. GPS coordinates guided students to general locations, while magnetic locators could help pinpoint the exact locations of targets beneath the surface. An RFID reader could then retrieve information allowing for the positive identification of a target and provide critical information that would eliminate the need to dig it up.

Using multiple technological tools, the students located 91 percent of their targets in an average of 2.51 minutes. When using only the RFID and magnetic locator technology, they achieved a 39 percent success rate in an average of 10.47 minutes. When asked to rely solely on GPS, they achieved a 19 percent success rate and needed an average of 14.1 minutes to locate targets.

“It became clear that using these technologies in combination could be very beneficial in a post-disaster setting where the time and accuracy of asset recovery are vital,” the report stated.

Vaile Feemster, Manager of the Dauphin Island Water and Sewer Authority, told Sankar and his partners that the combination of technological tools can be a tremendous asset in helping utility companies and governmental agencies respond more quickly and surgically in the wake of a disaster.

“The ability to quickly identify critical infrastructure will free up man hours, eliminate repairs and cost due to infrastructure damaged as a result of road clearing crews, and allow us to continue our focus on providing water and sewer services,” he said.

For more information on this story, contact Troy Johnson at or 334-844-8859

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