Posted by Brandye L. Hendrickson, Acting Federal Highway Administrator
When disaster strikes, time is of the essence. Every minute, hour, and day matters when making damage assessments in the aftermath of a powerful hurricane, flood, or storm. Technology saves time and can be critical to efforts to get roads and bridges open to traffic again after a natural disaster, especially when the damage is widespread and difficult to access.
That’s why the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) developed an app to replace detailed, time-consuming paper surveys and inspection reports on the damage required under the agency’s Emergency Relief (ER) and Emergency Relief for Federally Owned Roads (ERFO) programs.
FHWA’s “Mobile Solution for Assessment and Reporting” (MSAR) app, available for download from the Apple app store and other online app stores, is designed to simplify laborious and time-consuming data collection for FHWA, state Departments of Transportation, Federal Land Management agencies, and Tribal government engineers. Most importantly, it allows them to gather data in the field by downloading the app to a cell phone or tablet, making the process faster and easier by shortening a process that once took about 18 hours to 20 minutes, and saving taxpayers an estimated $1.2 million per disaster.
Traditional survey and inspection reporting requires cumbersome paper forms and maps, tedious spreadsheets, and the use and storage of paper maps, cameras, and other outdated tools – including tiresome data entry.
The MSAR system makes the process much easier – and faster – for trained professionals. It allows photos of the damage to be easily pinpointed on a map, often with estimated locations and identified by an inventory number. The estimates, photos or videos, and location maps are later compiled by state offices to be sent to FHWA emergency relief coordinators. The data is verified and, if need be, updated and sent via email back and forth. While still a complex data gathering effort, MSAR makes it much faster and more cost-effective.
MSAR was successfully piloted in 2016 but it was not until Hurricane Harvey in Texas that its real benefits were realized. Sixty counties in the state were affected, with much of the devastation centered on the Houston metro area – one of the nation’s most heavily populated areas.
Immediately after the water receded, FHWA’s Texas division office, the Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT), and local public agency engineers used MSAR to make damage assessments. On average, site inspections took 30 minutes with MSAR – making possible the completion of damage assessments for more 500 sites (including several on I-10, I-45, I-69, and other interstates) within three weeks. By mid-December, more than 900 were completed with the MSAR system, including data for assessments by Federal Emergency Management Agency.
During the Hurricane Harvey response alone last year, FHWA and TXDOT saved an estimated 17,000 hours of staff time – and time saved means roads and bridges get repaired more quickly.
After the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico were ravaged by Hurricanes Maria and Irma, MSAR made it possible for FHWA engineers to make damage assessments in real-time from division offices throughout the U.S. using data uploaded on mobile devices from the field. Data-sharing made it possible to assess most of the damage on St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John – the most heavily damaged of the U.S. Virgin Islands – within a week! This meant FHWA’s “quick release” emergency relief funds got to those who needed them sooner, allowing highway damage to be repaired quickly and surface transportation to return back to normal.
Getting vital transportation links back up and running again after a natural disaster or catastrophic event is our goal, but tools like the MSAR can speed the healing. With technological innovations like this, the FHWA can help restore and reconnect communities faster than ever before. Thanks to the MSAR, help is only a click away.