Role of Technology During Natural Disasters

Posted On: September 20, 2017 | Categorized In: Information Technology

Mother Nature will always have her way with the world. While we can predict paths of natural disasters as they form, we cannot predict when and where they will develop or the amount of catastrophic damage they will inflict.

On Aug. 25, 2017, Hurricane Harvey hit Houston and the South Texas area and is already estimated to take the number two spot for costliest natural disasters in U.S. history. With 33 trillion gallons of rain falling, it has caused great distress to residents in effected areas. Flood waters rose quickly and emergency personnel and volunteer groups performed thousands of rescues by boat and helicopter. Designated shelters were overwhelmed with evacuees, but Houston residents rose to the occasion, opening their homes and businesses (including furniture stores) to those displaced by the storm. After a week of delivery trucks being unable to make it into the city with supplies and relief, emergency response workers and Texas residents began to breathe a sigh of relief and pick up what was left behind: torn apart homes, displaced cars, and debris.

However, Irma arrived quickly on Harvey’s heels. One of the most powerful recorded storms ever, Irma hit The Bahamas, Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, and surrounding areas, putting this region in disaster recovery mode as well. As in Texas, many residents were trapped in the storm and required emergency rescues. Local emergency responders struggled to navigate their rescue boats through the wind and narrow pathways. Destroyed homes and landscapes across 650 miles caused millions of people to be without power. Even now, though Irma has passed, there remains the danger of storm surges across Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. Additionally, residents are still waiting for the water to subside and damage to be assessed so they can return to their homes safely.

While residents wait to return to their homes, many are put into rescue shelters — most of which are in need of survival supplies. People around the country, whether effected or not, have pulled together to help those in need. Some have volunteered their time to transport residents around the flood waters. Others have developed donation websites. These relief efforts have all relied on communication. Technology is playing a critical role in helping those in need, for those in shelters and back in their homes. Below are a few of the many ways technology can mean life or death for individuals in the midst of a natural disaster.

  • Rescue missions — One challenge of communicating during natural disasters is cell service and landlines can go down very easily. Innovative apps like Zell, a walkie-talkie app, and social media posts can allow people to send a call for help and use the power of a larger network to ensure their requests reach the right hands. Volunteer rescuers such as the “Cajun Navy” were able to rescue thousands of people during Harvey through the power of these tools. Very rarely will a rescue team go into a situation without walkie-talkies and radios. However, not everyone rescuing those trapped in homes, vehicles, buildings, among other places, requires a lot of technical communication.
  • Coordinating relief packages — With thousands of people displaced from their homes, it is very easy for relief efforts to devolve into unorganized chaos. During Harvey and Irma, crowdsourced information and new technology allowed for more organized relief efforts and better delivery. For example, volunteers from Sketch City, a local nonprofit group developed an interactive map of current shelter locations and lists the supplies each of those shelters may be in need of. Additionally, FEMA’s app allowed for people to quickly apply for relief and get immediate financial assistance in their recovery.
  • Google Person Finder — While there are various versions of the Google Person Finder, like the one Facebook provides, it is a place where someone anywhere in the world can search for a loved one. Once someone in a danger zone checks into the Google Person Finder, or similar applications, his or her loved ones can see they are safe, despite having lost his or her phone in these disastrous moments.

While we cannot prevent natural disasters, or even fully predict when and where they will hit, we do have the power to develop new technologies and apps that make weathering and recovering from the storm much easier. Disasters have a way of bringing out the best and most generous of the human spirit; technology simply allows that light to shine through.

The worst of Harvey and Irma have passed, but the urgency of need is still great for many  both in the U.S. and the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and The Bahamas. Those who have been evacuated or isolated for extended periods of time are in dire need for many basic, everyday items. Below is a list of organizations that are working to help victims of Harvey and Irma through monetary and other donations.

General Relief:




Donations are the biggest hope for cities in distress. Donating to disaster relief foundations makes a direct donation into the city and the families there that are in dire need.

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