BAY COUNTY, Fla. (WMBB) — Gulf Coast State College conceived the TEMPEST program after Hurricane Michael devastated the Panhandle.

It’s designed for post-disaster response, search ‘n rescue, infrastructure evaluations, supporting emergency management, and helping begin the recovery process.

Gulf Coast State College staff and students have spent the last week in the Ft. Myers area, participating in the first-ever deployment of TEMPEST.

The program is advanced technology using unmanned vehicles to help first responders in disaster-stricken areas.

Hurricane Ian provided their first training opportunity outside of the classroom.

“We’ve been tasked with sonar mapping the waterways around Lee County as best we can tell, there’s a little over 600 square miles of water,” Gulf Coast State College Director of Operations David Thomasee said. “And we’ve been using both manned vehicles and unmanned vehicles in conjunction with some local law enforcement agencies.”

Thomasee said they were searching the waterways looking for vehicles, boats, and debris, using side scan sonar on the unmanned vehicles.

“Yesterday, they actually found a house, like an entire house about half a mile from land,” Thomasee said. “So it’s been pretty exciting. I think when I talked with my team last night, just in this week alone, we’re close to about 500 targets that’s been identified already. And then the group from there or the disaster recovery group that’s working with them will come back with contractors to go and try and clean those waterways to get it back open for the folks that live there.”

Using the unmanned vehicles they scan all of the data, compile it into a spreadsheet, plug it into google earth, and share it with all of the counties.

“For students and a program that might be a once-in-a-program opportunity for some of them because, you know, we just, fortunately, we don’t get disasters all the time, but it’s just fantastic watching them work together, watching the students learn, watching the instructors as they are, you know, actively instructing in the field, using the equipment that they would use in the real world,” Thomasee said.

Thomasee’s team is still in South Florida helping with the recovery effort, they plan to return on Saturday.