GIS Specialist Plays Important Role Behind the Scenes of Lahaina Wildfire Recovery

As a geographic information specialist, Meg Ryan helps ensure that all team members have access to necessary geospatial platforms for their roles in disaster response.

The duties of her position are a balance of granting permissions for data viewing and using that data to develop products to better visualize the information provided.

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“From the mission manager to the quality assurance officer, from federal partners to state and local partners, I help connect responders to the data they need,” said Ryan.

Using GIS, Ryan created maps for public meetings, which were vital to communicating progress with impacted Lahaina residents.

Meg Ryan, a GIS specialist from Honolulu District, is supporting the Hawaii Recovery Mission. USACE PHOTO BY CORTLAND HENDERSON

Her products have also been used during visits with senior leaders, helping them visualize and gain situational awareness of the impacted areas during their briefings.

These products can range from a simple route map to storing and maintaining data on the GIS portal for internal and interagency use, hosting a web map for Maui County Department of Public Works, working on a reconciliation of current survey benchmarks throughout Lahaina or working with Maui Emergency Management Agency on Lahaina evacuation modeling.

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As a GIS specialist with Honolulu District, she regularly collaborates with diverse stakeholders, which has equipped her with the skills needed to excel in the mission’s fast-paced environment.

She sees deployments as an excellent opportunity to step out of her comfort zone and focus solely on something else. Even with the long hours and hard work, she says it is oddly refreshing.

“A deployment allows you to reflect on your life and your job and find a newfound sense of purpose by observing firsthand the immediate impacts of your role in the mission,” says Ryan.

Meg Ryan, a GIS specialist from Honolulu District, is supporting the Hawaii Recovery Mission. USACE PHOTO BY CORTLAND HENDERSON

Ryan also credits the work done by all of the other mission responders. From the environment and daily rhythm to the flow of information and mission operations, she knows collaboration with people across the enterprise has led to mission success.

As a first-time emergency mission responder, Capt. Charles Bierworth, a project manager with the Alaska District, sees the GIS databases as an integral part of the debris mission.

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“With approximately 1600 impacted properties across Lahaina, ranging from commercial to publicly owned to residential properties, not having a central database to manage all the data from the various organizations that conduct work on those properties would have been overwhelming,” said Bierwirth.

Bierworth finds the real-time data from the GIS system provides a product with the most accurate data possible, helping USACE and partnering agencies make informed decisions.

Ryan, who visited Lahaina for her birthday a month before the wildfires on Aug. 8, 2023, says it took time to prepare herself emotionally to deploy and see the devastation caused to the town she had visited for so many years. However, she has found the experience healing, an opportunity to give back to Hawaii.

“Witnessing what a community at varied levels can create when working together for a common goal is so special,” said Ryan. “This experience has reignited a love for my job that I didn’t even know I needed.”

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