When Disaster Strikes: Technology’s Role in Disaster Aid Relief

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Thousands of people are killed every year in natural disasters. Rescue teams and aid agencies often rely on technology to conduct rescue missions and help those who have been affected. Over the years, new technologies have been developed to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of first responders, further deepening the role played by technology in disaster aid relief.

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The Number and Impact of Natural Disasters

Since 2010, there have been a total of 2,018 natural disasters, which translates to 336 disasters per year. On the other hand, 525 storms and 822 floods were reported during the same period. It is estimated that 139 million people are affected by natural disasters every year. On average, natural disasters cause 72,205 fatalities annually.

Recent High Impact Disasters

On January 12, 2010, a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and caused between 230,000-316,000 deaths. 300,000 people were injured while 1.5 million were internally displaced from their homes.

In Khudi, Nepal, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake led to 8,669 deaths, 17,866 injuries, 269,190 damaged homes and 500,717 destroyed homes. There are still 384 missing people from the disaster.

On March 11, 2011, a 9.0 magnitude quake hit Tohoku, Japan. The huge earthquake caused 121,747 properties to collapse completely and another 277,679 properties to collapse partially. A total of 15,893 people died while 6,152 people were injured. Another 2,567 people were reported missing.

Technology Assistance at Disaster Sites

In recent times, technology has been employed to fast track disaster relief efforts. For instance, drones and robots have been used to locate survivors and transmit information to emergency teams. They have also been used to drop humanitarian aid.

The SERVAL project was developed in response to the Haiti earthquake. The technology allows mobile phones to communicate directly with each other even when there is no network coverage. TERA (Trilogy Emergency Relief Application) is an SMS text system designed for two way communication between aid agencies and people affected by natural disasters. The technology has been in use since the 2010 Haiti earthquake.

The NASA Finder was developed in response to the 2015 Nepal earthquake. This is a suitcase-size device which can detect human heartbeats under 20 ft of solid concrete and 30 ft of rubble.

ALIRT (Airborne Ladar Imaging Research Testbed) is a technology that can produce high-resolution 3D renderings of terrain and infrastructure. Among other things, the technology can help identify population changes at displaced persons camps, helicopter landing zones and road travel conditions. This information can help aid agencies to effectively dispatch vital resources, such as tents, blankets, water, food and medical supplies.

The Role of Social Media in Disaster Communications

After Hurricane Sandy, FEMA reported that over 20 million related tweets were posted in the following two weeks. On the other hand, there were 2.3 million related tweets in two days after the Haiti earthquake. Over 7.5 million Facebook users who were near Nepal in April 2015 checked-in via Facebook’s Safety Check.

Online Tools and Applications Developed to Aid in Disaster Relief

Micromappers was launched in 2013 and used in the 2015 Nepal earthquake, Typhoon Hayian in 2013 and several other disasters. The application creates a map from social media relief updates and sends it to aid agencies that get real-time updates from affected areas. Micromapper helps aid organizations to effectively plan relief efforts before going into disaster zones. During the 2015 Nepal earthquake, Micromappers processed over 60,000 images and tweets.

Google People Finder is another innovative piece of technology which can help with disaster relief efforts. It was developed in 2010 in response to the Haiti earthquake. It is an open source web application, which is available in over 40 languages. The application allows users to post and search for the status of people affected by a disaster. During the 2015 Nepal earthquake, well over 7,500 records on the people finder were searched.

The Red Cross Emergency App has been incredibly helpful with disaster relief in the recent times. It gives survivors weather updates, preparedness information and safety tips. The Red Cross credits the application for saving several lives in the United States.

The Future of Prediction Technologies

Fatalities and injuries from natural disasters can be reduced if the disaster can be predicted and advance warning given to people in the danger zone. Several disaster prediction technologies have been developed over the years.

Wildfire Prediction, for instance, was developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research to predict wildfires through computer simulation. The computer model is updated every 12 hours with the latest satellite data and observations, thereby allowing scientists to issue forecasts and warnings.

Flood Prediction uses radar, streamflow computer simulations and highly detailed computer model weather simulations. The predictions can be used by decision-makers to decide whether or not to issue warnings.

Earthquake Prediction is part of an earthquake early warning system developed by the U.S. Geological Survey. The system uses high-grade ground motion sensors. A popular example of an earthquake warning system is California’s SHAKEALERT.


Recommended Reading

Social Media in Emergency Management: Tools and Applications for Disaster Response

The Ultimate Resource on Emergency Management in the Southern United States

Trends to Watch in Emergency Management in 2020