After Harvey: Technology is Changing the American Disaster Response
It was 2005. Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast and became the costliest hurricane to make landfall in the United States.
Following FEMA’s widely criticized response to Katrina, NBC Universal held a celebrity-filled telethon to raise money for the victims. Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes, Glenn Close, Lindsay Lohan, Mike Myers and others joined forces on television to unite the country under one goal – raise lots of money to help people who lost everything due to the storm.
That night, rapper Kanye West famously called out the President on live television. Going off script and referencing displaced Gulf Coast residents, West said, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”.
“It was good TV,” says Frank Radice, the show’s senior producer.
It was. “A Concert for Hurricane Relief” drew 8.5 million viewers and raised a reported $50 million. Most importantly, it started a new conversation about how the federal government should respond during natural disasters.
The World is Watching, Now In Real-Time
Texas has been on my mind since Hurricane Harvey made landfall. The first major hurricane to hit the US mainland since Katrina, Harvey is expected to cost up to $190 billion to clean up.
Recalling Katrina and that telethon (which seems like an eternity ago), I can’t help but think about how much technology has changed since 2005. A concept then in its infancy, social media has now proven to be a major asset for Hurricane Harvey victims, as many residents used social-media tools to gain assistance and call attention to sometimes life-threatening situations.
It’s a bad cliche, but it’s true. Now in real-time, the world is watching the response to Harvey because of the evolution of smartphones and social media.
According to the Pew Research Center, only 5% of Americans used social media in 2005. In 2016, that number increased to 69%. Pew didn’t ask respondents about smartphone usage until 2010. Then, only 35% said they owned such a device.
Now, 77% of the US population uses smartphones, while 88% use the internet. The capability to instantly capture and consume video didn’t exist in 2005 and it has changed the way Americans respond to natural disasters like Harvey.
“Social media can be a useful source of information from communities where they are familiar with this technology. It is also a great way for communities to hold aid agencies to account,” says Jean-Martin Bauer, analyst at the World Food Programme.
Federal agencies, especially FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security, must be aware of the public relations and policy implications that would occur if Hurricane Katrina played out in 2017.
(If you need a refresher, this day-to-day recap by National Geographic gives a brief overview of Katrina and what victims in New Orleans experienced in the aftermath.)
Can you imagine the outrage if video out of 2005 New Orleans appeared on Facebook Live? Imagine if New Orleans residents could simply “tweet” at news organizations about the terrible shelter conditions, rather than waiting for journalists and photographers to arrive at the Superdome. Imagine seeing bodies of the deceased in Snap Stories instead of on the Nightly News with Brian Williams.
Kanye West’s criticism of President Bush wouldn’t have been controversial at all. Millions of social media users would have already expressed similar thoughts before he was even asked to appear on stage.
There is a Place for Technology to be Helpful
Tech products, like phones, apps and websites, are increasingly being used in new ways to help during disaster events. As CNN pointed out, we’ve seen this kind of tech-enabled emergency response in other countries before, but never in the United States.
In Houston, Harvey took out over a dozen emergency call centers. Annie Swinford, a Houston resident, found out how difficult it was to reach emergency personnel. She was put on hold for 45 minutes before talking to a live person during one 911 call.
“This is a situation where technology and accepted norms of communication are outpacing government’s ability to manage,” says Rob Dudgeon, an emergency management consultant.
Social media platforms have been flooded with requests for rescues. Nextdoor, the popular social media site for neighbors, says it has seen an unprecedented number of users in Houston in the last few days.
As Nextdoor CEO Nirav Tolia explains, “there is a place for technology to be helpful. In this case, neighbors are helping each other because the most resilient communities are the ones where neighbors can communicate. So, whether its talking about who’s being evacuated, or in some extreme cases asking to be rescued, neighbors are using Nextdoor to lean on each other and stay safe.”
How Tech Companies are Helping Harvey Victims
Technology companies are in a unique position at this moment in American history. Larger tech companies in Silicon Valley sit on massive troves of user data and they have the vast resources necessary to mobilize their data sources (also known as humans). Companies like Facebook and Google encourage generosity among its user base by matching donations. Others, like AirBnB, are asking hosts to offer free lodging for displaced Harvey victims.
Many of these tech companies did not exist in 2005, or were much smaller compared to today. Here are examples of how some are helping Harvey victims:
- Facebook recently added a dedicated tab for its Safety Check feature, along with the ability for people to make donations and offer help during disasters.
- Apple has added a donation button directly into iTunes and the iOS App Store, with proceeds going toward the American Red Cross. The button allows users to donate easily in increments from $5 to $200 using the payment information already linked to their account.
- Google pledged to match $1 million in donations toward relief efforts in partnership with the American Red Cross. The company has also added Texas and Houston-specific alerts across its product suite with SOS Alerts that detail emergency phone numbers, relief fundraisers, maps and other resources.
- Lyft has integrated donations to the American Red Cross in its Round up & Donate feature, which encourages riders to round their fare up and send the difference to a good cause. Lyft will also donate $100,000 to the Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund and has temporarily paused operations in cities directly affected by Harvey to protect both drivers and passengers.
- Amazon and Whole Foods are matching donations made through Amazon to the Red Cross, up to $1 million. The company has also added a Wish List of things that those affected by Harvey might need so that users can send specific items to the Red Cross in lieu of a cash donation.
- Airbnb is opening its platform to those displaced by hurricane and flood damage, waiving fees and pairing them with hosts offering free lodging for those affected.
- GoFundMe, the social fundraising site, has created a landing page that gathers the campaigns on its platform related to Harvey.
Technology is Storytelling and Fundraising
The internet has fragmented the media industry. Through the use of technology, average citizens are now capable of igniting conversation and they’re motivated to use tech platforms to help each other in times of crisis. That’s a good thing, especially when the government and its public safety agencies aren’t as effective as people hope.
Technology and social media now can function as fundraisers, something once reserved for the expected post-disaster telethon. Harvey telethons will raise lots of cash, but individuals and small businesses aren’t waiting for TV networks to tell them “operators are standing by to take your call”.
As a nation, we (unfortunately) need to be ready for the next natural disaster. We need to learn from the experiences of the resilient people affected by Harvey, just as we learned lessons following Katrina. Their stories are coming to the social media platform(s) of your choice.
When they share, let’s listen.
Buffalo Tech Consulting supports the American Red Cross in their efforts to help people affected by Hurricane Harvey. You can help by making a donation on their website.
Photo: In the aerial photo, a neighborhood near Addicks Reservoir are flooded by rain from Tropical Storm Harvey Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)