In the year 1900, a massive hurricane swept across the Gulf of Mexico. The people of Galveston, Texas shrugged off the vague, imprecise meteorological warnings about the coming storm. Instead of stocking up on supplies, evacuating dangerous areas, and bunkering down in safe places, they went about their lives as they would on any normal, windy, rainy day. The storm came ashore packing 120mph winds. Of the 38,000 residents in Galveston, nearly 8,000 were killed.
Fast forward to 2017. Hurricane Harvey slams into Houston — a city of 2.3 million residents — with 130mph winds. Harvey was even stronger, and potentially more devastating, than The Great Hurricane of 1900. Hurricane Harvey ended up causing hundreds of billions of dollars worth of damage — but, thankfully, the death toll never rose above 82.
It’s astounding, the difference that technology can make in peoples’ lives.
Hurricane-tracking computer models save lives
Simply by being able to predict when, where, and how badly hurricanes will strike, thousands of lives can be spared.
Computer scientists and meteorologists have been working together, since the dawn of the computer age, to develop and improve hurricane forecasting models. These computer simulations aren’t just some old programs created in the 1980s; they’re ever-evolving pieces of software, which are continuously improved by the diligent work of coders & scientists.
After Hurricane Sandy, Congress granted $80 million to the National Weather Service, to improve its hurricane forecasting models. Considering the fact that massive hurricanes like Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, and Irma often cause damage that ranges into the hundreds of billions (Billions with a B), this $80mm would appear to be a prudent investment.
As our forecasting models continue to improve, we are able to get more and more accurate predictions. While they may never be perfect, the computer simulations that we have today allow for a kind of precision that the meteorologists of 1900 could only dream of.
Computer modeling is just one of many ways in which developing technologies are saving lives in hurricane situations.
Web & mobile apps save lives in Hurricanes Harvey & Irma
While the first hurricane-tracking computer models date back to the 1970s and ’80s, interactive web & mobile apps are more of a millennial phenomenon. We are only just beginning to see the ways in which apps are helping to save lives in hurricane disaster situations.
GasBuddy is an app that helps people find up-to-date information on where to get gasoline. Its interactive map shows nearby gas stations and their prices. Normally, people use GasBuddy out of convenience, to quickly and easily find cheap gasoline.
In hurricane situations, on the other hand, GasBuddy can save you a lot more than a few cents a gallon.
In the days leading up to Irma, evacuees waited for hours at gas stations throughout South Florida. To make matters worse, many stations completely ran out of gas, leaving drivers out of luck. Many spent critical hours of their hurricane-preparation time driving around looking for gas.
Thanks in part to a public shout-out from Florida’s Governor, Rick Scott, GasBuddy was downloaded 350,000 times on the Thursday before the storm. For context, GasBuddy normally averages 30,000 downloads per day, worldwide.
By the time Irma hit the Florida Keys, more than 60% of gas stations in Miami were completely dry. But by using GasBuddy’s interactive map, people were able to save precious hours of their limited preparation time.
Zello is an app that basically turns your smartphone into a walkie-talkie. Just push a button, and you’re live on the air with up to two thousand contacts. During Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, Zello was used extensively by rescue crews, to coordinate their operations.
Bill Moore, Zello’s CEO, explains: “The fact that it’s live voice makes it ideal for communicating during a crisis… In large part thanks to a massive volunteer effort, it’s remarkable how little loss of life there was given the scale of the disaster.”
Zello’s management team has indicated that there was a 20x increase in new-user downloads in Houston during the week of Hurricane Harvey, and over a million new downloads in a single day, in Florida and Puerto Rico, in preparation for Hurricane Irma.
Houston Harvey Rescue
Data engineer Matthew Marchetti was stuck in Houston when Hurricane Harvey hit. After the storm, Marchetti went out on rescue missions, but felt helpless in the devastating aftermath of the hurricane. He was able to rescue a few people, but there were thousands more that still needed help.
To make matters worse, the 911 system was completely overloaded, and couldn’t handle the number of calls coming in. Marchetti realized that his skills as a data engineer might actually be able to save lives. He could help people get the help they needed.
“I saw all these people asking for help and others offering it,” Marchetti told Crunchbase News. “So we made a map to match those people together and crowd source the operation.”
Marchetti, along with fellow developers Nate Larson and Oliver Carter, spun up a web app called Houston Harvey Rescue, in under three hours, in the midst of one of the worst natural disasters in recent memory. Through their simple web app, Marchetti & co. were able to help coordinate the rescues of over 7,600 people. They have since adjusted the app to help out in Hurricane Irma, and are developing it to work for future disaster situations as well.
Other new technologies that save lives during hurricanes
There are many other ways in which new technologies are helping to save lives and mitigate losses in hurricane situations.
Open data was been used extensively during Harvey and Irma, to give everybody access to the information they needed for preparation, evacuation, and survival. By releasing data in real time, officials were able to help citizens navigate the hurricane safely. Citizens were easily able to view data like water levels, emergency traffic patterns, nearby hurricane shelters, power outage areas, and the status of governmental and emergency services.
Drones & IoT Devices
Over the past few years, FPL has been using new technologies, like drones and internet-of-things devices, to help avoid and repair power outages. These technologies allow utility companies like FPL to quickly assess areas that are in need of resources and repairs. While for many electricity is a luxury — nobody likes being in Miami when the air conditioning is out for a week — it can literally be a life-and-death necessity for others.
Social media has been a game-changer during hurricane situations as well. It allows users to communicate quickly with large groups of people. Hurricane victims are able to quickly & easily let friends and family members know that they’re OK. After hurricanes like Harvey and Irma, people have been using social media to coordinate rescue & volunteer efforts, and to raise money for hurricane victims as well.
New technologies save countless lives in hurricanes every year. By helping us be more prepared, by allowing us to communicate and coordinate more effectively, giving us access to life-saving data, and helping keep our electricity up-and-running, coders, computer scientists, and technologists provide much-needed help, when we need it the most. This is but one of the ways in which coders are able to contribute to and advance our global civilization.
If you want to get your foot in the door of the tech world, contact us at techlaunch.io. We can help get you started in tech, in your spare time, and without breaking the bank. Maybe, one day, you’ll be the one developing new, life-saving technologies.