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 and 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 the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history. With 27 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 to 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 that they can return to their homes safely.
While residents wait to be able to return to their homes, many are put into rescue shelters. Most victims of which, need survival supplies. People around the country, whether they have been effected or not, have pulled together to help those in need. Some have volunteered their time to transport residents around in 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 place of a natural disaster.
- Rescue missions — One of the challenges of communicating during natural disasters is that 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 request reaches 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 relief to be much more organized and better delivered. 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 also provides, it is a place where someone anywhere in the world can search for a loved one. Once someone who was in the 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 seem to be able to predict soon enough 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 US and in 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.
- UNICEF Hurricane Relief
- Red Cross Disaster Relief
- The Greater Houston Community Foundation
- United Way of Greater Houston