Amber Gee and her two children evacuated last week from their home in Callaway, a town of about 15,000 in the Florida Panhandle, and she assumed that her relatives who lived northeast of her had done the same.
Gee learned that they were in distress after scouring a map of aerial imagery published by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that showed the severe damage from Hurricane Michael in the area. Someone had used trees felled in the storm at her grandmother’s house in Youngstown to spell out “help” in letters big enough to be seen from the sky. She later learned that her uncle, Ernest Gee, had made the message outside the home, which is owned by her grandmother, Emily Bently, Gee told ABC. Bently had already evacuated, but Ernest, his wife and a friend had not — and they were trapped, she said.
A testament to the power that digital imagery holds to provide detailed portraits of human activity in a rapid time frame, as well as the effectiveness of an old-school SOS directed at the sky, the miraculous story has been covered by media outlets across the country.
The images were taken by one of NOAA’s Beechcraft King Air 350CERs, a twin-engine plane flown by two pilots and a technician to operate its four cameras. Though the agency has long used planes for imaging and mapping purposes, its work to provide images of disasters within hours of their occurrence was prompted by response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Mike Aslaksen, chief of the remote-sensing division at NOAA, said in an interview.
Working then with film cameras, the agency took five days to supply emergency responders with computerized images of the area.
“Some of the response community said, ‘We need the imagery within 24 hours or it’s no good,’” Aslaksen said.
The agency was first able to meet that goal after a storm in 2003.
It now has nine aircraft housed at an airport in Lakeland, Fla., that head toward disaster scenes to provide images to emergency responders, government agencies and the public.
Flooding from hurricanes has occupied much of their time in recent years; planes flew for 30 straight days to take images around Houston after Hurricane Harvey, Aslaksen said. The photographs allow first responders to track affected areas and scientists to study flooding levels — a vast improvement over the process of sending teams out to map levels manually — and evacuated residents to check on their homes.
“We’ve got to support the response community, but at the end of the day, the data that NOAA collects is in the public domain, and making that data available to the public is one of our priorities,” Aslaksen said. “We’ve worked hard to make the website pretty intuitive.”
Images of the Florida Panhandle show the destruction of the storm in towns such as Mexico Beach and, in areas farther inland, carpets of downed trees.
Aslaksen said the Gee family’s story was similar to an incident after Hurricane Katrina, when responders found a resident who had spelled out “help” around a home after the flooding.
The story of the Gee family was shared first on Facebook by the Emergency Services division in Bay County, where the town is located.
“This is an incredible story of how people are working together in this situation,” it wrote. “Someone from another county was using the mapping app to check property in rural Bay County and noticed the word ‘help’ spelled out in the grass in logs.”
Gee fled her home Thursday, after the storm made landfall in the area, with brutal winds and heavy rain causing damage all around the Panhandle.
After she saw the SOS, she contacted emergency officials, hoping to prompt a wellness check. Representatives from another county’s sheriff department arrived at about 2 a.m. Sunday to assist the family, ABC reported.
Satellite imagery shows numerous trees that had fallen to block the dirt road to the property.
“Apparently, they had to cut through a lot of downed trees to get there,” Gee told ABC.
The death toll from the hurricane is at least 18, and dozens of people are unaccounted for in the storm’s hardest-hit areas in Florida. Many communities in the Panhandle still do not have cellphone service. An additional 190,000 in Florida and 120,000 in Georgia do not have electricity, according to the Associated Press.