On a May afternoon in 1889, disaster struck. Several days of heavy rain in central Pennsylvania had swollen the reservoir at Lake Conemaugh, and the waters finally overtook a crumbling dam. Twenty million tons of water were unleashed, barreling toward Johnstown, Pennsylvania.
According to History.com, "the flood appeared as a rolling hill of debris more than 30 feet high and nearly half a mile wide." The wall of water swept away 1500 buildings, and 2,000 people were drowned or missing. The event lasted 10 minutes.
However, national response to the disaster was swift as well. The American Red Cross heeded the call for help, "marking the first peacetime mobilization in the agency's history," says NPR. Red Cross personnel set up camps for refugees displaced by the flood, and provided medical care, food and water to the ravaged town. Donations poured in from all over the country, and local agencies took up the task of rebuilding.
This piecemeal approach to natural disasters would be standard in the U.S. for nearly the next 100 years. However, a string of natural disasters in the 1960s and 1970s would change disaster management for good, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency was formed. While FEMA has only been around for 38 years, the agency traces its roots back to the Congressional Act of 1803, when the federal government first assisted in disaster relief and recovery.
FEMA was created to oversee and coordinate the relief efforts that were already common practice by the time of its inception. Using this oversight, FEMA brings together a number of agencies to provide care for those affected by disasters. Since the 1970s, FEMA has relied more and more on technology to assist with these efforts.
21st-Century Tech for Disaster Management
With a federal agency working full-time on disaster response and relief, a number of new technologies have been useful in the efforts. Speaking of the impact technology has had on disaster relief, chief technology officer for Microsoft Disaster Response, Tony Surma cites the efficiency that technology brings: "Technology enables responders to coordinate rescue missions and work efficiently from the minute they arrive in a disaster zone, and helps businesses recover so communities can begin to rebuild faster."
For example, the company One Concern has developed technology to coordinate emergency management in regions affected by earthquakes. As Forbes reports, the company uses "the built environment (public and private infrastructure datasets), the natural environment (local geology, vegetation, climate, etc.), and live data (real-time monitoring, social media, etc.) to construct a model predicting damage and loss of life." Resources can then be allocated based upon this analysis.
Twenty-First-Century Tech for Survivors
FEMA has even developed its own app for use in disaster situations to leverage the ubiquity of cell phones. The app allows users to locate open shelters, receive emergency updates and to upload pictures to assist responders. This handheld technology saves lives and empowers survivors to assist others as well.
Though the FEMA app is still gaining traction, social media has already proven itself as a valuable tool in a disaster situation. Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter have all been able to connect survivors to first responders — and each other. During Hurricane Harvey in 2017, the self-styled civilian Cajun Army banded together to rescue those trapped by flooding. Social media was integral to coordinating their efforts and connecting them to those who needed them most.
Technology has the potential to save the lives of those impacted by a disaster, but it also has the power to prevent that threat to human life, too. Better monitoring of climate change and weather patterns can help responders predict disasters much more effectively. Emergency management professionals use this data to coordinate their efforts before a disaster strikes. In this way, when the hurricane hits land or the tornados touch down, teams of responders are at the ready.
Disasters can happen at any time: it is part of what makes them so deadly. However, we have come a long way since the Johnstown flood of 1889. Modern dam technology, for one, would stand up to the torrential rains that marked the beginning of the disaster. More importantly, though, emergency management technology has progressed as well. In the event that safeguards fail, responders and survivors can look to technology to mitigate the loss.
Sources:FEMA: About the Agency
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