4 Ways Technology Helped During Hurricanes Harvey and Irma (and 1 more it could have)

by on September 14, 2017 · 0 comments

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma mark the first time two Category 4 hurricanes have made U.S. landfall in the same year. Currently the estimates are the two hurricanes have caused between $150 and $200 million in damages.

If there is any positive story within these horrific disasters, it is that these events have seen a renewed sense of community and an outpouring of support from across the nation. From the recent star studded Hand-in-Hand relief concert and JJ Watts Twitter fundraiser to smaller efforts by local marching bands and police departments in faraway states.

What has made these disaster relief efforts different from past hurricanes? These recent efforts have been enabled by technology that was unavailable during past disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina.

  1. Airbnb

Many people chose to evacuate once the paths and intensity of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey became clear. In fact, Hurricane Irma created the largest evacuation in US history. As a result, many hotels quickly filled.

Airbnb has been able to step in to allow local citizens to help in this situation by waiving its fees and encouraging owners to offer space free of charge to those displaced by the disasters. The website also makes it easy for evacuees to search and find available lodging. The service not only helps evacuees, but also volunteers and contractors coming to the area to help with recovery.

Additionally, the website was able to help authorities locate and communicate U.S. citizens who may have been in rented residences on Caribbean islands after the storm hit.

Licensing or other regulatory requirements could also limit what or which owners are able to offer in times of emergency preventing good Samaritans from being able to help. Regulations applying other lodging regulations, interpreting zoning laws, or outright bans on services like Airbnb could prevent this free service in the future. While Airbnb can waive its own fees, it would be unable to waive regulations from state or local governments allowing owners to offer their home. Often such regulations or enforcement attempts target hosts rather than companies like the zoning interpretation the city of Miami considered. If there are concerns about legality, individuals might be less likely to fill this void and help their neighbors or strangers through such services in times of crisis.

  1. Drones

The Red Cross called for volunteer drone pilots who had the necessary paperwork and authorization to operate in the impacted areas and for the first time in a one week test used drones to deliver and survey disaster relief needs in some of the hardest hit areas.

But delivering supplies is not the only way drones are able to assist with recovery efforts. Verizon and AT & T were able to use drones to determine if equipment was damaged and causing outages, and then respond accordingly. Similarly some insurers have been deploying drones to allow adjusters to view and assess heavily damaged areas sooner.

In the immediate aftermath prohibited private drones from flying in areas around Houston, still the agency issued some permits allowing drones to assist in locating those who are trapped and survey the damage.  There were many legal concerns to be considered in the initial aftermath and in the future use of drones including both property issues and concerns of interference. A less restrictive environment might have allowed drones to provide greater assistance sooner with a minimal risk of privacy invasion or interference.

  1. Tesla

Tesla issued an over the air update for additional battery life (an upgrade that is normally available for a fee) to provide owners the ability to evacuate following the preferred route. While some may have concerns that this power could be used negatively by the corporation, the success shows that over-the-air updates could be used to improve safety or other features in the future.

Additionally, one of the issues in any evacuation is traffic. The more cars on the road (particularly as weather worsens), the greater the risk of accidents. Assuming there is not too much precautionary interference, in the future self-driving cars could aid in making evacuation traffic safer and less stressful.

  1. Social media and messaging apps help connect neighbors and get help

Want help? There’s an app for that.

The Cajun Navy gained renown for rescuing neighbors in the Southern Louisiana floods, but the app Zello made becoming a member of it even easier during Hurricane Harvey. Similarly, the app allowed victims of the storms to share information as power went out using less bandwith then phone calls.

Traditional social media also played a role in search and rescue efforts. When 9-1-1 failed, those in need of help turned to Twitter and Facebook in some cases. Neighbors, friends, or even strangers could use the information to provide help when traditional responders were unavailable. So many people were relying on social media, the Coast Guard had to issue a comment requesting people call not tweet at them for rescue.

Social media certainly had problems with misinformation, but in recent disasters it has shown to be an important part of disaster response and preparedness.

The one that might have been….

Could Flytenow have provided a possible solution to some of the concerns of airline price-gouging in the wake of Hurricane Irma? Flytenow hoped to make flight sharing a reality for the masses, but was shutdown due to interpretations by the FAA regarding common carriers. There are limitations on flight sharing, however, in a crisis, it’s possible allowing this type of arrangement could have resulted in a greater number of flights available. If demand was high, available pilots planning their own evacuation might consider posting additional available seats for others in exchange for some share of the expense of the flight. The result likely would be more seats available and lower prices overall. Using a platform rather than a traditional bulletin board arrangement would allow a service to limit the availability to only those who are certified or otherwise shown to be competent to fly in difficult conditions. Perhaps Flytenow would even have provided some sort of good Samaritan program like Airbnb to help get flights to those most in need of evacuation. Still, because of regulatory precaution, at least for now, we will not know the potential impact flight sharing could have on assisting in such natural disasters.


Technology is changing the way we respond to disasters and assisting with relief efforts. As Allison Griswold writes at Quartz, this technology enabled response has redefined how people provide assistance in the wake of disaster. We cannot plan how such technology will react to difficult situations or the actions of such platforms users, but the recent events in Florida and Texas show it can enable us to help one another even more. The more technology is allowed to participate in a response, the better it enables people to connect to those in need in the wake of disaster.

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