When I was in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, on Katrina Huricane recovery duty (the Blue Roof program), the map situation was terrible. We never did have very good access to maps and the ones we had were not always that useful. And the local governments got tired of us stopping around and depleting their supply. We should have had access to GPS and GIS equipment (developing technologies at the time) but didn’t.
But with new technologies, hopefully things are changing. According to Hannah Bloch writing in NG (Oct 2010):
When disaster strikes, accurate maps can be lifesavers. After a magnitude 7 earthquake rocked Haiti on Jan 12, 2010, first responders were hampered by the scarcity of street maps–but not for long. Within hours, volunteers in the capital city, Port-au-Prince, and elsewhere had filled in cartographic blanks, creating far more detailed, accessible, and immediate maps and images that most of those available online.
Using test messages, GPS, and plain old pencils and paper, they dispatched thousands of alerts a day about street names, building collapses, and injury locations. Disaster-response nerve centers synthesized the information with satellite data, which helped guide emergency workers, including the U.S. Marine Corps and Red Cross.
User-generated maps can present pitfalls. Accuracy, for instance, isn’t guaranteed. But in Haiti benefits outweighed drawbacks. “Don’t stop mapping,” came a January 17 call from FEMA to Ushahidi-Haiti, a student-run project at Tufts University. Crisis mappers won’t.
The current collection of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) being developed should also help with the process. They can be easy deployed and provide almost immediate information on crisis conditions.