Heroes of Harvey

The Unexpected Hero of Harvey: Technology

Harvey was America's first major natural disaster of the modern tech era—which was lucky, as the internet and social media saved lives during the storm.

By Jeff Balke October 2, 2017 Published in the October 2017 issue of Houstonia Magazine

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Image: Shutterstock

“Are you looking at the hurricane again?” My wife was glaring at me across our grocery cart inside H-E-B. “Because, if you are, I’m going to have you declared mentally insane.”

It was nearly a week after Hurricane Harvey had ravaged the city, and I was still obsessed, now with Hurricane Irma. I’d checked my phone three times since we’d pulled into the parking lot, and we were only at the produce section. I’d long been fascinated with weather, but rarely had I been able to follow a storm with such precision and detail.

During Harvey, I created what my wife referred to as a “command center” in our kitchen. All the outlets were in use, connected to computers, tablets and phones, but also portable chargers and UPS battery backups, in case of a power outage that, for us, fortunately never came. That first night of ceaseless rain, sleep was impossible. I stood there, transfixed by the tragedy unfolding on the screens in front of me. Harvey, I realized, was America’s first major natural disaster of the modern tech era.

I made liberal use of weather websites and resources like Eric Berger and Matt Lanza’s Space City Weather, the National Hurricane Center, and Tropical Tidbits, a remarkably advanced weather-tracking website complete with the kind of computerized weather modeling typically found only in labs (and the page I kept looking at a week later at H-E-B). These sites, along with apps like Weather Underground and NOAA Hi-Def Radar, made it possible to track Harvey and monitor incoming rain bands throughout that first sleepless night and the days that followed.

I also spent plenty of time on the Harris County Flood Warning System. While it occasionally struggled to handle the load of requests, it was invaluable to Houstonians, allowing us to monitor water levels along area bayous and creeks. Cole Creek, behind our neighborhood, got within three feet of the top. Then, as the water rose, traffic websites and apps helped to guide what few people remained on the roads around treacherous conditions, while traffic cameras gave a glimpse of the worsening crisis and played host to dramatic rescue efforts.

Even after the rain finally ended, technology became the bridge between those needing help and those offering it. Local hackers Sketch City created ShelterBot, which helped volunteers and donors find nearby shelters in need, while fundraising sites like YouCaring helped JJ Watt raise over $33 million for Harvey relief efforts. And websites like I Have Food I Need Food popped up seemingly overnight.

Meanwhile, friends sent money to my wife and me via PayPal and Venmo, cutting out the middleman and allowing us to purchase socks for first responders, baby items for evacuees, and kennels for displaced pets.

But there was no more powerful resource throughout the ordeal than social media. Much maligned, sometimes with good reason, Twitter and Facebook literally saved lives during Harvey. Even with power outages across the region, phones connected to cellular networks kept people connected. Rescuers like the Cajun Navy, coordinating efforts with apps like Zello, used social media to find those in need of rescue. And the tens of thousands of people posting during the storm served as their own lifeline, both to those in real need and those who stayed dry but still needed support.

As the storm wound down, Instagram and YouTube filled with footage of both devastation and heroism, and provided us with a digital record of what we faced and how we overcame.

My little command center has been retired for now. And for the record, I did turn off my phone before my wife had me committed at the H-E-B. But of course, soon I was back at it, tracking Irma, and I’ll do it all over again the next time a hurricane forms over the Atlantic. Distracting as it may be, technology has become more than games and texts and selfies. It’s now a lifesaver.

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