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Juniata Students Use GIS Technology to Complete Mifflin County Mapping Project

(Posted October 1, 2001)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- A group of Juniata College students taking part in an independent study course on water management have completed the first phase of a project that reclassified all floodplain areas in Mifflin County and entered the new map information onto the county's Geographic Information Systems (GIS) as part of $38,000 grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The students, supervised by Dennis Johnson, assistant professor of environmental science at Juniata College and a water resources engineer, were asked to convert existing FEMA Flood Insurance Rate Maps into digital maps, incorporating the new digital information into Mifflin County's extensive GIS database.

A GIS system uses digital maps arranged in layers that can be viewed singly or as part of an interrelated system. Each "layer" of a GIS system is devoted to one element of an area's landscape. Detailed maps of rights of way, streams, wetlands, 911 zones, soils, election districts and other elements all can be entered and analyzed on a GIS system. Mifflin County, which has established an extensive GIS database, incorporates well over 30 separate map layers for the county.

The project chosen for the Juniata students centers on making flood insurance rate maps accurate and up-to-date. By federal law, all homeowners and business owners who own structures located in a floodplain must buy flood insurance as part of their mortgage and homeowner insurance package. For a typical homeowner, flood insurance can cost from $600 to $1,800 annually.

"The current maps FEMA uses for flood insurance rates are on paper and are based on data and estimates from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s," Johnson explains. "Times have changed -- streams are in new places, stream flows are different, roadway runoff has changed."

Johnson says that current Flood Insurance Rate Maps (FIRMs) also have gaps in mapping arising from differences in surveys by different companies, or by surveys done years apart. The first phase of Juniata's project has compiled all the data and corrected any obvious errors. They made floodplain corrections of errors that were the result of multiple data sources. All existing flood insurance maps have been digitized throughout Mifflin County.

The students also identified all flooding problem areas -- such as a culvert or widened stream-- and programmed into the maps the capability to call up a detailed photograph of the area at the click of a button.

"We sent students out to photograph every problem area," Johnson says. "The students also gave the map users the capability to click a button to get directions to wherever the problem area is."

The current Juniata College students who worked on the project are: Julia Saylor, a senior from Williamsburg, Pa.; Anne Parry, a senior from West Chester, Pa.; and Loni Plocinski, a senior from Williamsport. Several 2001 graduates also worked on the project: Alexander Metcalf of Randolf, Vt., an environmental science graduate; Dina Leslie of Hastings, Pa., an environmental science and ecology graduate; Elaine Kneller of Mechanicsburg, Pa., an ecology graduate; and Branden Diehl of Everett, Pa., an environmental science graduate.
"We were extremely impressed at what the students have done," says Erik Rourke, regional hydrologist for FEMA's Region III (which includes all of Pennsylvania). "They really took the project to a different level. Creating a digital map is not an exceptional thing, but what the Juniata students accomplished is exceptional."

Johnson and the student team received the FEMA Region III Cooperating Technical Partners Outstanding Community Award for their work on the project. The students and Johnson also made a presentation on their project at a June meeting of the Association of State Floodplain Managers in Charlotte, N.C. "We were one of two presenters at the meeting," Johnson says. "The other presentation was from a group representing the state of Nebraska."

In the next phase of the Mifflin County project, the Juniata team will perform hydrologic and hydraulic analysis using computer software to create models of flood scenarios to predict new flood elevations for the insurance map database.

Peggy Fisher, information technology director for Mifflin County, says the county is looking forward to working with Juniata College students on future projects. "We were extremely happy with the initiative of the students and their self-motivation," she adds. "The biggest impact their work will have is that the new maps will reclassify some properties out of floodplains and place other properties in floodplains."

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.