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When Disaster Strikes

(RapidEye) As a remote sensing company, we can only hope that through the technology we have access to, we can reduce the complexity of the situation for the people on the ground in Japan and elsewhere.

Unexpected Circumstances

When you work with geospatial information, there will be days when all of your scheduled meetings and regular everyday tasks seem insignificant. Your business will be focused in an area that you were not expecting, because every EO company is in the disaster monitoring business. It’s inevitable.

March 11, 2011 was definitely one of those days at RapidEye. A disastrous event occurring almost 9,000 kilometers from Brandenburg, Germany suddenly became the focus of many of RapidEye’s 130 team members.

As of April 1, it has been named the “Tōhoku” earthquake and tsunami by the Japanese government, which literally means “Eastern Japan Great Earthquake Disaster”. One month has passed since it occurred, and for many who live there or are involved in relief and cleanup efforts, the crisis is far from over.

The Japanese earthquake and resulting tsunami were the first topic of discussions in the offices that Friday. Many employees had already heard about it as they made their way to the office and were watching or reading news on the Internet.

The BBC was showing live footage of the tsunami via helicopter by the NHK (the Japanese Broadcasting Association). Offices were hushed as a small group gathered around a computer monitor, watching vehicles on local roads as people tried to escape the approaching water and were engulfed by it. Massive ships were being pushed onto land and houses were swept away. It was clear that hundreds of thousands of lives would be affected and lost by the unfolding event. The devastation was unbelievable. Now was the time for RapidEye to come together as a team and take action. It was expected, and it was something we could do to help from half a world away.

Rapid Response

RapidEye’s Business Operations team immediately began scanning the RapidEye Library, an ever-growing archive of RapidEye satellite imagery, to see what images were available from before the event. In addition, there were impromptu discussions within the company as to how quickly the satellites could be tasked to cover Japan’s northeastern coast. Decisions on the management level were made, and the satellites were redirected to the affected areas.

Acquiring imagery almost immediately after an event such as this is crucial to relief agencies as they manage the disaster on the ground. It was obvious early on that relief efforts and rescue operations would be massive and that the devastation would far exceed that of the Chilean earthquake in 2010, almost exactly one year before.

The International Charter, an organization providing a unified system of space data acquisition and delivery, was activated by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), one of its eight international members. As a result, The Center for Satellite Based Crisis Information (ZKI), part of the German Aerospace Agency (DLR), contacted RapidEye for data. They requested as many before and after images of the eastern seaboard of Japan as could be acquired.

On Saturday, March 12, the first images were taken by the RapidEye constellation of satellites at 11:20 local time. A weekend crew was in-house to manage the incoming data from Japan, deliver them to the International Charter through the ZKI and distribute a press announcement to its worldwide media contacts.

The press release alerted organizations involved in emergency efforts that RapidEye currently had imagery of the eastern coastline of Japan. The response to the press release was international.

Increasing Public Interest in EO

During the following week, RapidEye fielded calls and visits from many local and international media outlets. Television appearances about RapidEye and its involvement in Japan relief efforts were highlighted on German television through Tagesschau, Planetopia, the ZDF and RBB (Berlin/Brandenburg).

Newspaper and online media outlets such as Spiegel Online, The Financial Times, Berlin’s Tagesspiegel and even New York-based CBS news were interested in RapidEye and its imagery. Much media attention was focused on EO imagery from providers such as RapidEye in regard to the benefits of using remote sensing to best direct relief efforts, as well as how change detection mapping can be produced with before and after imagery.

Using the two accompanying RapidEye images as an example, you will find the port city of Kesennuma, located in the Miyagi Prefecture. Both use the color Infrared (CIR) band to highlight areas of vegetation. In the ‘before’ image you will see that there is much vegetation throughout the city (grass, trees, agricultural fields, etc.). Even when taking into account the seasonal vegetative differences, the CIR images highlight the dramatic differences in both urban and agricultural areas before and immediately after the tsunami.

Doing What We Can

The Japanese tsunami inundated a total area of approximately 470 km² according to the NHK (the Japanese Broadcasting Association). Since March 11, over 563,000 km² of Japan, including many multiple coverages, have been imaged by RapidEye. The area has been collected by the satellite constellation over eleven days of the last 30, which resulted in a collection of over 150 tiles 25 × 25 km in size.

There is no question that natural disasters have been on the rise in recent years, but there will never come a time when an event of this magnitude will become routine. Every person and every company involved in the disaster management arena knows that these situations cannot be avoided. As a remote sensing company, we can only hope that through the technology we have access to, we can reduce the complexity of the situation for the people on the ground in Japan and elsewhere.

As of this week, over 28,000 lives have been lost as a direct result of “Tōhoku”. Disaster management may not be the most lucrative part of operating a satellite imagery and solutions company such as RapidEye, however, there is always the humanitarian desire to help when you can. Additionally, whenever possible, the EO community has a moral obligation to assist a governmental or civilian organization in any aspect of managing a crisis, if and when disaster strikes.

About RapidEye
RapidEye is a provider of quality high-resolution satellite imagery and solutions derived from its imagery. With a constellation of five Earth Observation satellites, RapidEye images over 4 Million square kilometers of Earth every day, and has amassed almost 2 Billion square kilometers in its Library in just over two years of commercial operation. With an unprecedented combination of wide area repetitive coverage and five meter pixel size multi-spectral imagery, RapidEye is a natural choice for many industries and government agencies.