With help from federal homeland security grants, the state of Alabama earned national praise in 2007 after it rolled out an innovative program known as Virtual Alabama. It’s a database of existing satellite imagery and aerial photography, such as surveillance footage from the state’s transportation department, that enables emergency-response personnel to better visualize areas of Alabama facing a catastrophe or other critical incident. The partnership with Google Earth that eventually led to Virtual Alabama’s creation resulted in the state receiving a number of awards for innovation including one from the National Governors Association. Experts around the country have described to us in interviews the need to “see” an entire disaster scene, like the path of a tornado’s destruction. That way, resources can be deployed to locations that appear to have sustained the most devastation. In bureaucratic-speak, officials call it “situational awareness” or “a common operating picture.” Virtual Alabama is considered among the best versions of it anyone’s come up with so far. It’s based on a public/private partnership with Google Earth, a program maintained by the Internet search company that consumers were already using widely for free. The program can be used to determine the extent of storm damage relatively quickly, but the state’s also relying on Virtual Alabama for economic development projects, to determine if polluters are violating environmental laws, for establishing fire evacuation routes based on the floor plans of schools and for identifying critical infrastructure. Users looking at a digital map of the state or individual communities can turn “on” and “off” with the click of a mouse the location of flood plains, fire hydrants, street lights, gas lines, water lines and more, the same way Google Earth already does for hotels, airports and restaurants. The general public does not have access to Virtual Alabama, however. Unfortunately, our efforts to obtain homeland security grant spending information from the state of Alabama in electronic format, such as a spreadsheet, didn’t make it very far. State officials at the Alabama Department of Homeland Security told us in response to an open-records request that all such documents were in paper form only. We were welcome to drive a pickup truck to their offices with a copy machine in the back to duplicate records, one official said in response. But that wasn’t entirely practical. A spokeswoman did tell us that about $150,000 in homeland security grants were used to create Virtual Alabama and to purchase a pair of computer servers totaling $45,000. Federal reports of the state’s anti-terrorism grant spending have not revealed any significant problems with Alabama’s handling of these funds in recent years, at least as far as major homeland security programs are concerned. However, auditors have at times raised questions about the state’s oversight of disaster assistance received from the federal government following hurricanes Ivan, Dennis and Katrina. Auditors found in February of 2009, for example, that the city of Gulf Shores, Ala., had not complied with federal guidelines when it awarded $14 million in contracts for debris removal. They also concluded that contractors had overcharged Gulf Shores officials by $500,000. The city, in turn, charged duplicate invoices to the federal government leading to more than $400,000 worth of additional questioned costs, according to auditors.
G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.More by G.W. Schulz