Op-ed | Lifesaving technologies front and center in disastrous month

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As Hurricanes Harvey and Irma wreaked widespread destruction in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina in late August, and just days later, Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands with a force “not seen in modern history,” we are seeing the worst of Mother Nature bringing out the best in human nature. We see neighbors helping neighbors, strangers lending a hand to those in need and Americans donating hundreds of millions of dollars for hurricane relief.

A GOES satellite image of Hurricane Harvey. Credit: NASA
A GOES satellite image of Hurricane Harvey. Credit: NASA

We also are seeing how technology is saving lives. Big data is enabling forecasters to effectively warn citizens and government officials. Apps allowed citizens to navigate many obstacles associated with massive evacuations. Drones are a critical tool that are providing first responders with invaluable intel on unreachable areas that had desperate people in need of evacuation.

And this is just a glimpse. In the very near future artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things will give emergency workers even more tools to combat natural disasters.

It’s fair to assume that technology saved lives. Supercomputers fed with hundreds of millions of data points from satellites, aircraft, ocean buoys and ground stations worked 24×7 to provide forecast models that enabled government officials to predict everything from wind speeds to storm surge to rain totals, and with a high degree of accuracy. These forecasts warned about the devastation the two hurricanes would wreak more than a week in advance of their arrival.

After Hurricane Harvey, Texans replaced Instagram photos of their pets and tweets about their favorite television shows with social media posts calling for help. As Houston 911 call centers were overrun with 56,000 calls in 15 hours, Houstonians took to Facebook, Instagram and Facebook to ask local, state and federal officials as well as good Samaritans for assistance during their most desperate hours. Many answered the call.

Before Irma’s arrival, Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s top recommendation for Floridians was to keep their smartphones charged and to leverage a wide variety of apps to help them find fuel, navigate safely and stay connected before and after the hurricane arrived.

Internet-enabled traffic cameras on nearly every major roadway in Florida provided real-time traffic info to government officials. This data was then shared with Google’s emergency response team to ensure that Google Maps and Waze apps accurately depicted the status of roads.

AT&T deployed more than 700 piece of equipment including Cell on Wheels and Cell on Light Trucks to provide first responders in Florida with network connectivity to manage emergency operations and response centers.

Further we have seen drone footage from flights over the toughest to reach and most damaged areas in Houston, Beaumont and the Florida Keys. Drones not only located people in need of urgent help but did so faster and provided more immediate intelligence than traditional search-and-rescue efforts.

The advances made since Hurricane Katrina in 2005 are staggering. Facebook was just a little over a year old and had just 5 million active users. The use of drones in a search and rescue mission was used for the very first time in 2005 to find a missing woman in Georgia. They were not used at all to help Hurricane Katrina victims.

One must also not forget the technologies that are utilized for modern building that allowed so many structures to survive winds more than 120 miles per hour. We only need to look at the heartbreaking devastation on the many Caribbean islands to see the impact of poor construction on the loss of life and, much less important, property.

Hurricanes Harvey and Irma affected more than 20 million Americans and the core of the storms hit five states. Katrina was a very powerful but smaller storm that hit less populated areas yet its U.S.death toll was more than 12 times that of Harvey and Irma combined.

Unfortunately, we know that Harvey, Irma and Maria are not the last destructive hurricanes that the U.S. and the eastern Atlantic will ever see. But there is something we can do: continue to invest in technology and systems to keep the loss of life and hardship to a minimum. To accomplish this, we need more tech workers, from all walks of life, to realize this potential.

We can do more and learn more – not just for the U.S. but for every country, regardless of wealth – affected by these massive storms. This past month makes me optimistic that we will.

 Todd Thibodeaux is president and CEO of CompTIA, the world’s leading technology association, with approximately 2,000 member companies, 3,000 academic and training partners, over 100,000 registered users and more than two million IT certifications issued.