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With MyCoast, your photo of flooding could help avert disaster

An image on mycoast.org of Hyannis from January 10, 2024.
An image on mycoast.org of Hyannis from January 10, 2024.

The state wants you to upload pictures of flooding, storm damage, beach erosion and tides.

Odds are, if you're walking along the beach you've already got your phone in your hand.

So take a picture at high tide, or of any erosion you spot along the coastline. Your photos, once uploaded to the MyCoast app, help the National Weather Service make predictions and expand public awareness of local hazards.

Morning Edition spoke to Julia Knisel, coastal shoreline and floodplain manager for the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management.

Patrick Flanary MyCoast can tackle a lot of things, including storm damage and erosion monitoring. But it really only works if people are pulling out their phones and snapping pictures.

Julia Knisel That's right. We developed mobile applications back in 2013 to get the MyCoast tool into the hands of residents. We currently have about 500 users submitting reports across the Massachusetts coast. That's 78 coastal communities, which breaks down to two or three users at our most at-risk communities. So we could really use some more coverage.

PF This doesn't have to be a disaster that we're photographing, right?

JK We originally developed MyCoast to capture coastal storm damages. And then we added a king tide tool so that we can record observations of those higher-than-normal tides on a more frequent basis. We encourage people to go out during new and full moons at the highest tide of the day, and take photographs of flooding around buildings, into parking lots and around landmarks that people in the community are familiar with.

PF This app helps the National Weather Service make its predictions, right?

JK That's right. The National Weather Service has used our data to refine its minor, moderate and major flood definitions for communities.

PF Let's say Chatham finds itself in the crosshairs of a big storm. Are you looking for people specifically in Chatham to take photos before, during and after the storm?

JK We encourage community members to go out only when it's safe. We don't want anyone walking or driving through floodwaters, so wait until the peak of the storm has subsided before looking for evidence of erosion, flooding and damage to buildings and infrastructure. The app automatically grabs your location and tags it to the photo, and then you submit. Once that photograph and report is logged into our online system, we then pull tide data and tag it to the report so you can see the exact water level that corresponded with that depiction in your photograph.

PF Take us back 10 years to MyCoast's earliest days.

JK We originally developed it as an operational tool for the Massachusetts Coastal Storm Damage Assessment Team. That team was created after Hurricane Bob in 1991, and we used to phone in reports from the the impacted areas to the State Emergency Operations Center.

By 2009 we had the technology and the desire to improve how that information was reported and relayed after we optimized the system for the storm team. Then we were ready to open it up to our community members so that we could get better coverage and more frequent information flowing in.

PF So you need not be an expert in weather to use this app? I can go out there, take a photo and appreciate that I'm contributing in some fashion?

JK People who live in coastal communities have easy access to the coast. They're out walking and are very familiar with changes in their environment. They can see when the water level is coming up around their favorite waterfront restaurant or in a parking lot of their business. And it's very informative to have those snapshots tagged to the tide level. It really helps us identify those threshold water levels where we're going to see increasing impacts along the coast.

Patrick Flanary is a dad, journalist, and host of Morning Edition.