Tornados, Hurricanes, Wildfires, Oh My—A Year to Remember with Gray Sky

It doesn’t need to be said that 2020 is a year we won’t soon forget. But for those of us who focus heavily on natural disasters and catastrophes, it’s undeniable that this past year has broken records. And thanks to the GIC’s Gray Sky program, the aftermath of these catastrophes and their impact can be better understood with high-resolution imagery, helping restore and rebuild damaged areas. 

Gray Sky: The Pinnacle Program for the GIC 

The GIC has been covering “gray sky” or disasters since Hurricane Harvey struck Texas in 2017. Since that time, the program has only continued to grow as an initiative of the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB). The comprehensive imagery library is available not only to members but is shared gratis with first responders and other government agencies after a catastrophic event.

Richard Butgereit, Director of Catastrophe Response for the Gray Sky program, runs all day-to-day activities, from planning and monitoring to determining a response to critical situations. And it’s no small feat to stay on top of weather-related events spanning the continental U.S. 

“I do event and condition monitoring all the time, literally 24/7,” shared Butgereit. “We have our own methods of daily monitoring such as looking at fire weather outlooks, convective outlooks for severe weather. We get alerts from the National Weather Service, National Hurricane Center, USGS, NAPSG…pretty much everything that could help us be aware of potential and current conditions.” 

Nearly 50% Increase in Capturing Natural Disasters over 2019 

Nothing about 2020 has gone according to plan and Mother Nature was intent on following that script to a tee. The major difference between 2019 and 2020 disasters? The sheer number of events. 

“The first hurricane of the year to which we responded set the tone and clearly indicated to me it was going to be a difficult and challenging year,” reflected Butgereit. “Consider the uniqueness of a derecho in Cedar Rapids, IA, to California wildfires that continued on for weeks, to Hurricane Isaias across six states—it was just one event on top of another. In 2020, we monitored 41 events and flew—or captured—22 disasters. It was almost double of what we did in 2019 which was 25 monitored and 14 flown.” 

Factor in Category 4 Hurricane Laura hitting southern Louisiana and then Hurricane Delta striking the exact same area six weeks later, the hits just seemed to keep on coming. State Emergency Operations Centers from California to Florida, already stressed due to the COVID-19 response, were feeling the pressure to understand at large scale the scope and breadth of each catastrophe. Butgereit stays in close contact with these agencies to help ensure they have the latest information to aid in response and recovery efforts. 

“We get great input from public safety stakeholders, all across the country. I’m fortunate that I often get to share in their experiences and hear how our imagery has helped improve a disaster situation.” 

Take for instance the Rogue Valley Council of Governments in southern Oregon. Wildfires had devastated many communities and as evacuations took place, residents waited to hear whether or not they still had a home or business to return to. “You should know,” shared a council member, “your imagery provided great relief to a number of families yesterday as I was able to confirm that their homes and businesses were at least standing.” 

“You should know your imagery provided a great relief to a number of families…as I was able to confirm that their homes and businesses were at least standing.”

Council Member at Rogue Valley Council of Governments, Oregon

In California it was much the same with Cal Fire and their DINS teams able to view images of fire ravaged areas.

“We had extensive communication with them,” said Butgereit, “helping understand the areas that had a higher priority for density of damages. Their team was able to use our imagery with their mobile mapping applications.” 

Keeping Members Informed and Looking to 2021 

It can’t be overstated that the success of the Gray Sky program for the GIC is largely because of Butgereit’s expertise and his ability to identify key concerns and communicate to members what’s available. Besides up to twice daily email notifications to GIC members during an active Gray Sky event, monthly newsletters are delivered so members stay informed of activity and availability of data. 

“Having that communication with our members is just as critical as with first responders. We use that to continue to refine our program and make improvements that drive a better experience.” 

When asked about what members could expect in 2021, Butgereit chuckled and then paused before sharing, “The uniqueness of this year hopefully helped show our customers we’re ready to respond and deliver needed content with speed and accuracy. Internally, our organization is just getting better, bigger, and stronger with great support for the Gray Sky program.” 

“The depth we’ve built gives us a lot of confidence that we’ve honed our planning, we’ve got great procedures established, and we’re going to be ready to take on whatever 2021 throws at us.”