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From Katrina To Harvey: How Disaster Relief Is Evolving With Technology

Open data and social networks like Snapchat and Facebook have helped FEMA react more quickly and effectively.

From Katrina To Harvey: How Disaster Relief Is Evolving With Technology
A peson waits to be rescued from his flooded home after the area was inundated with flooding from Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas. [Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images]

Open data may sound like a nerdy thing, but this weekend has proven it’s also a lifesaver in more ways than one.

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As Hurricane Harvey pelted the southern coast of Texas, a local open-data resource helped provide accurate and up-to-date information to the state’s residents. Inside Harris County’s intricate bayou system–intended to both collect water and effectively drain it–gauges were installed to sense when water is overflowing. The sensors transmit the data to a website, which has become a vital go-to for Houston residents.

Since the storm hit, many of the bayous have completely run over, says Rafael Lemaitre, the former national director of public affairs at FEMA, who currently lives in Houston. He routinely checked the flood gauge website over the weekend, as did many residents in the Houston area. They watched intently as green marks on the page turned to red, indicating that the water was rising. “I know a lot of my neighbors rely on that during during the storms,” he says.

This open access to flood gauges is just one of the many ways new tech-driven projects have helped improve responses to disasters over the years. “There’s no question that technology has played a much more significant role,” says Lemaitre, “since even Hurricane Sandy.”

While Sandy was noted in 2012 for its ability to connect people with Twitter hashtags and other relatively nascent social apps like Instagram, the last few years have brought a paradigm shift in terms of how emergency relief organizations integrate technology into their responses.

Social Networks Now Play An Indispensable Role

Many Texans have been taking to apps and websites to help document their troubles and need for assistance during Harvey. Snapchat, which barely existed when Hurricane Sandy struck five years ago, has emerged as a popular destination for live storm updates. Thousands of people have posted updates about their surroundings using the app; they’ve also used it to report events such as power outages.

Snap tells Fast Company that it’s seen a marked uptick of usage over the last weekend, with as many as 300,000 posts submitted to the Harvey “Our Stories” section. Similarly, the Map section, which shows area where many people are using the app, has helped present up-to-date information about areas that need emergency assistance.

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Facebook has been another platform for disaster citizen engagement, particularly with the emergence of Facebook Live. Not only are people marking themselves as “safe” to inform loved ones, but many are posting video pleas to help get the word out about where action is needed.

Updated Disaster Relief For A New Era

Social media isn’t just for the residents. Local and national agencies–including FEMA–rely on this information and are using it to help create faster and more effective disaster responses. Following the disaster with Hurricane Katrina, FEMA worked over the last decade to revamp its culture and methods for reacting to these sorts of situations. “You’re seeing the federal government adapt pretty quickly,” says Lemaitre.

There are a few examples of this. For instance, FEMA now has an app to push necessary information about disaster preparedness. The agency also employs people to cull the open web for information that would help make its efforts better and more effective. These “social listeners” look at all the available Facebook, Snapchat, and other social media posts in aggregate. Crews are brought on during disasters to gather intelligence, and then report about areas that need relief efforts–getting “the right information to the right people,” says Lemaitre.

There’s also been a change in how this information is used. Often, when disasters are predicted, people send supplies to the affected areas as a way to try and help out. Yet they don’t know exactly where they should send it, and local organizations sometimes become inundated. This creates a huge logistical nightmare for relief organizations that are sitting on thousands of blankets and tarps in one place when they should be actively dispersing them across hundreds of miles.

“Before, you would just have a deluge of things dropped on top of a disaster that weren’t particularly helpful at times,” says Lemaitre. Now people are using sites like Facebook to ask where they should direct the supplies. For example, after a bad flood in Louisiana last year, a woman announced she had food and other necessities on Facebook and was able to direct the supplies to an area in need. This, says Lemaitre, is “the most effective way.”

Put together, Lemaitre has seen agencies evolve with technology to help create better systems for quicker disaster relief. This has also created a culture of learning updates and reacting in real time. Meanwhile, more data is becoming open, which is helping both people and agencies alike. (The National Weather Service, which has long trumpeted its open data for all, has become a revered stalwart for such information, and has already proven indispensable in Houston.)

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Most important, the pace of technology has caused organizations to change their own procedures. Twelve years ago, during Katrina, the protocol was to wait until an assessment before deploying any assistance. Now organizations like FEMA know that just doesn’t work. “You can’t afford to lose time,” says Lemaitre. “Deploy as much as you can and be fast about it–you can always scale back.”

It’s important to note that, even with rapid technological improvements, there’s no way to compare one disaster response to another–it’s simply not apples to apples. All the same, organizations are still learning about where they should be looking and how to react, connecting people to their local communities when they need them most.

“Citizens and neighbors will always help each other out,” says Lemaitre. The uptick of various apps and open data, however, “allowed people to come together and get focused, as well as connect people the resources they need in a much faster way.”

About the author

Cale is a Brooklyn-based reporter. He writes about business, technology, leadership, and anything else that piques his interest.

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