Technology and Hurricane Response

We’re not even at the end of 2017’s hurricane season and we seem likely to break the kinds of records that no one wants to break, like the number of Category 3 or greater storms in one season and cost of rescue, recovery, and rebuilding. Much, of course, remains unknown about the final toll on Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Some of the horrors that have been avoided in Florida and Texas are due in part to the technological changes that have taken place since, for instance, Hurricane Rita in 2005.

During Hurricane Rita, the hallway walls of Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio were wallpapered with handwritten Post-It notes and scraps of paper: 36,000 evacuees had no other way to leave messages about their whereabouts. Emergency services depended on dry-erase boards to keep track of available space in shelters and the deployment of aid. Local and state agencies had no way to coordinate their efforts.

Changes since then have included everything from better hurricane prediction and tracking to emergency management software that allows agencies to monitor shelters, supplies, and available responders. In the future, Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1), already in place in some states and localities, will allow the public to call for aid by voice, texts, images and video with or without wireless access. During Harvey, Harris County 9-1-1 would have been greatly helped by NG1-1-1. It received 80,000 emergency calls in one day rather than a more typical 8,000, because it is the call center for all of Houston and Harris County. The outcome is predictable: a region is flooded and then 9-1-1 is flooded, and calls cannot get through and help is delayed. NG9-1-1 prevents one call center from becoming overwhelmed by diverting calls to nearby centers.

Some of the technological changes that helped in Texas and Florida involved the use of social media by individuals, local jurisdictions, and FEMA. Ideally access to communications is supported by the deployment of mobile satellite units and hotspots. As Puerto Rico is demonstrating, tragically, we all increasingly depend on electronic communication.

In Texas and Florida, everyday technology became emergency technology. Google maps showed road closures in Florida in real time. Facebook’s safety-check tool (and others like it) allowed people to post information about their safety and whereabouts, but civilians could also send out calls for help and photos or video of what they were observing. FEMA used some of this information to help them position supplies and personnel as well as to respond more quickly and effectively to those in need. People affected by the hurricanes also consulted apps to find out which gas stations were open and to find housing through Airbnb.

Other communication apps have also helped during recent hurricanes. Zello is one of the walkie-talkie apps that allowed ordinary civilians and out-of-state first responders to take emergency calls. There are obvious problems inherent in this, as when untrained volunteers were overwhelmed by the volume of calls or speaking to someone whose family member had just stopped breathing. At the same time, someone was at least answering the phone and relaying information to others. During Hurricane Harvey, CrowdSourceRescue (among others apps) coordinated more than 7000 rescues, bringing together people who needed rescuing and people who had boats or other vehicles with which to rescue them—it also creates a record of which calls had been answered.

Ideally, the electronic devices and programs enable communication and coordination among victims, families, neighbors, first responders, and government agencies.

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