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Technology has brought us countless conveniences. Order an Uber with a few clicks. Tell Alexa you want a pizza. Let Google Assistant direct you to the nearest coffee shop.

All that’s nice, isn’t it? But tech can (and is) doing much more important things.

One crucial achievement technological tools have given us is the ability to respond to natural disasters more quickly and effectively. Indeed, tech has the potential to save countless lives and greatly reduce the damage when nature strikes.

Social media and mobile improve preparedness and response

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina claimed 1,833 victims and caused $108 billion in damages. Many experts argue social media and mobile technology could have saved lives, only if Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms were available like they are today.

Jason Samenow, a meteorologist and weather journalist, attests that, with social media, “messages about how severe the storm was and the importance of preparedness would have permeated society.” Decision-makers, politicians, celebrities and others would’ve been motivated to spread information across their networks and call others to do the same.

Additionally, responders could have accurately identified where help was needed. Timo Luege, a humanitarian communications and innovation consultant, wrote in a personal blog post about how FEMA director Michael Brown hadn’t known evacuees were stranded at the New Orleans Convention Center without food and water until news reporters got there. Surely this information could’ve reached FEMA much more quickly with social media — and folks could’ve been saved.

Now, compare this to 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit. More than 3.2 million Tweets using the hashtag #Sandy were published on the first day. During the height of the storm, people posted 10 pictures of what was happening on Instagram every second. This enabled anyone with a mobile device or internet access to see the latest information, and helped responders work more effectively. Mobile and social media undoubtedly saved lives.

Big data and IoT create predictions and accurate real-time info

Big — and open — data and the internet of things (IoT) showed its power to be used for good during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Thanks to gauges that had been installed inside Harris County’s intricate bayou system, which is used to collect and drain water, residents and rescuers could see in real time where flooding was most severe. FEMA and other responders were then able to quickly mobilize resources to help areas in danger.

Even before a natural disaster hits, technology can save lives by pinpointing what areas will be hit hardest and identifying the best evacuation routes. This data gives rescuers actionable insights about how to best allocate and deploy resources as well.

For instance, NASA and NOAA, along with municipalities, are now utilizing sensor data, satellite imagery, and other surveillance to give first responders and volunteers valuable information into potential problems — before they happen. As more data is collected and mined, machine learning algorithms will continually improve. And that will improve the effectiveness of all rescue operations during natural disasters.

This is truly a noteworthy development. Everyone must be aware of how technology can aid us during natural disasters. As Chris Wilder, an IoT expert, says, “Although the severity of the disasters might increase, the loss of life has been greatly reduced by improvements in communications and the distribution of information.”

Autonomous technology delivers supplies, finds survivors, and assesses damage

Victims in the midst of natural disasters require food, water, clothes, medical equipment, life jackets, and other supplies to survive. In both rural and urban areas, it can be difficult to reach everyone. New technologies not only help us locate where people in need are, but also actually deliver life-saving supplies.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (that is, drones) can serve an especially important role during natural disasters, specifically when survivors are cut off from evacuation routes. For example, in China, the National Earthquake Response Support Service is using drones to find survivors, deliver food and supplies, and coordinate rescue attempts.

In the aftermath of disasters, drones provide assistance as well. Once Hurricane Irma in 2017 had passed, drones flew over areas in Florida, assessing the damage to buildings, roads, tunnels, bridges, and more. This has made relief efforts more effective, rebuilding more efficient, and insurance claims less time-consuming.

Beyond autonomous vehicles, boats, and aircraft, even autonomous balloons are proving to be very helpful when natural disasters strike. When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico so hard in late 2017, Google’s Project Loon sent balloons to the island, and beamed internet connectivity to more than 100,000 people.

Technology: The Key to Drastically Improving Disaster Response

I’ve been amazed by how we’ve come together during natural disasters. Major advancements in technology, especially social media, mobile, and AI, have equipped us with tools to do an even better job. We must be sure to use these tools to the fullest extent when a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or other disaster hits. It’s the key to saving lives.