Hurricane Harvey — Citizen-Led Emergency Services In the Eye Of The Storm

Hurricane Harvey from the ISS

I am literally writing this from a few miles from the eye of the remnants of Hurricane Harvey, as it goes by Houston, finally. Rescue efforts are reaching maximum rates now, and every available means is being deployed to rescue people from dangerous, or just plain miserable, conditions. The elderly, demented, paralyzed, confused, children, you name it, are in need of help right now. Almost all of my own neighborhood self-evacuated 2 days ago after all of the houses flooded early-on during the storm. Surprisingly, I did not flood, did not lose electricity, did not lose WiFi or air conditioning, and have safe clean running water. But I am practically alone. Alone physically, but also alone in condition. Almost everyone in the Houston Metro area has been impacted by this storm. It has rained more in 3 days than it normally rains all year. The images you see on TV are not hyped-up images — that is exactly the way things are here. But there is a subtle difference that most people do not report on — the region is now a series of islands that are unconnected now. The roadways are underwater in many places, but not all places. That makes it impossible to move around. I know people that need evacuation, and I have a safe dry place to temporarily house them, but I cannot get to them. The National Guard is arriving, but there has been an immediate and ongoing need for 3 days already.

Enter, “The Cajun Navy”. This semi-organized flotilla of air boats, bass boats, aluminum boats, and even larger offshore fishing boats, is actually comprised of multiple groups. As the name suggests, they hail from Louisiana. There is also “The Texas Navy”. These are all “good old boys”, with southern pride and some even with confederate flags. When disaster strikes, they are the ones who step up and regain order and quietly save people without charge, without a need for thanks, without a need for cameras rolling. They just do it because it’s the right thing to do. Neighbor helping neighbor. It’s a cultural tradition that has existed in Louisiana and Texas for as long as I have been alive. We are proud of our states. These guys have saved tens of thousands of people before the police, fire, ambulance, national guard, and president, could even get to us. There’s hundreds of them. Maybe thousands. They have been working tirelessly, which is an oxymoron in this case, because they are exhausted and now working in shifts and sleeping on concrete floors.

How do they do this? And how can we make them even more effective? I have nothing against the government, but it can only move so swiftly. Orders have to be issued, the chain of command has to be followed. The government, even at the city level, is anything but agile. The mayor of Houston has barely managed to open evacuation centers at this point, and almost all supplies at those centers are being supplied by volunteers giving of themselves. The evacuation centers themselves are staffed almost entirely of people that just showed up out of the goodness of their hearts. But the Cajun Navy traveled from another state, set up impromptu shops all over the place, assigned dispatcher responsibilities, mapping responsibilities, system monitoring, and organizational responsibilities, and became fully-operational, WHILE the hurricane was happening!

Just think about how difficult that would be to do, while under assault from the weather.

Smart phones and the internet turned out to be the enabling factor here. Most cell phone towers are equipped with back up generators, so they never go out unless the winds reach a high enough speed to tear them down, which is almost impossible. The generators are typically built atop a stand to keep them above water. Cell phone companies still have competing towers, so the systems are redundant, as well. We often see 3 towers all within a few hundred yards of each other — these are competing providers. This handy system, coupled with a free app named Zello, provides instantaneous walkie-talkie-like communications, with many channels that can be spontaneously created. Communications is the key. With a touch of the touchscreen on your phone, you can ask hundreds of people if a road is underwater between point A and point B. People let you know they crossed it with no problem or tell you it is too deep to pass. Other people advise alternate routes. This is necessary in an emergency because the situation is dynamic and always changing. A roadway can become closed, then passable again, and repeat this cycle many times through the course of a storm. Rainfall patterns are spotty, water depths vary, and change, and tornadoes constantly menace anyone out in the storm. With live communications, everything can be monitored, and activity can be managed. This turns a rag-tag group of individuals into a well-oiled machine, as organized as any police department or military platoon. It allows the various teams to cooperate and ask each other for assistance. It allows calls for help to be distributed to the nearest rescue team, and for those calls to be kept track of so that no one slips through the cracks. Everyone, and their animals, medicines, clothing, and toys, are assisted. At the height of the storm, calls to 911 often dropped, or the wait time was very excessive, and even after the wait time, the physical response was running almost an hour before an ambulance could make it. This is no fault of emergency services. They cannot possibly build an infrastructure to be able to handle hundreds of thousands of calls in a single evening. But an ad-hoc organization of citizens can spring forth almost instantaneously during almost any emergency. Hurricane Harvey in Houston has proven that this approach is successful beyond our wildest dreams. Our heroes next door saved us. We saved ourselves. The nightmare of Katrina did not happen, in spite of this storm being an 800 year flood event, and possibly the worst flood in our nation’s history, in one of the densest population zones in our state.

What no one sees is all the impromptu rescues that happened. These people are not looking for publicity or fame, unlike the government, which you see on TV telling us how heroic their efforts are. The media flock to government press conferences, where the mayor tells us how many thousands are in shelters at the moment and talks about how his police and EMS are working overtime to help. They are, to be sure, but what he doesn’t mention is that ten times as many people as his entire shut-down government are making the rescues, getting the people to the shelters, and voluntarily staffing the shelters themselves. The city government provides little more than ambulance rides to hospitals, and in the case of Houston, the two public hospitals closed down and evacuated in the middle of the storm! Now, I know this sounds like I am dissing public workers, but I am not. They work very hard to help us. The fact is, is that many of them were told to not come to work in the storm because conditions were too hazardous to ask that of them, but they were out there anyway, working in their own neighborhoods, sacrificing themselves in spite of the ongoing disaster.

So the ending to this short story is this, a question for the reader. How could we further improve on this system? How could we make a distributed system to supply ALL of the needs of humanity during an emergency? Can we expand what we already have, and should we? The answers are obvious.

Information must propagate rapidly. Depths of street flooding, fallen trees, inter-communications with conventional emergency services must be created. Anyone who has used Waze knows how valuable it is to have advanced roadway conditions ahead. The roadway information is provided by the user community. In a similar manner, the entire emergency response team could be provided with complete data about each other, and fed information by the entire regional population. Every household could report water levels in the street in front of their house. Wind speed could be reported. Hazards could be reported. A host of other conditions could be reported. Live automated monitoring stations, and live traffic cams are available on the internet and are generally hosted far away from the disaster zone, and so can be trusted to be available for dispatchers. If traditional EMS services could find a way to integrate with the ad-hoc network of citizen-responders, a complete response system could be implemented, and coordination to maximize EMS resources could occur. Outside volunteer resources are presently coming in, and seeking routing information, they need to know where to deliver supplies, and what routes are passable. They currently all need real-time information. A seamless app that provides everything at the touch of a button is needed. Waze, Zello, and government information services are all needed in a single app, so that people can save themselves. Such a system needs to be robust, and capable of providing filters to separate the noise from the coordinators and communicators. There needs to be competing systems working in parallel, so that people can gravitate to the more effective and responsive systems. Dispatchers were being overwhelmed with incoming radio traffic and unable to deny radio traffic when critical operations were happening, such as a helicopter dispatch seeking a landing zone near a school where 20 kids with special needs were trapped, but ten other people simply wanted to get out of their homes and were in no particular danger. A lot of air-time was spent getting the locations of the people seeking help, when GPS could automatically send the exact coordinates of the people seeking help. A lot of time was spent figuring out paths to get from a rescuer’s position to the rescuee. This too could be automated.

A phone app that seamlessly coordinates all of the data available is needed. Information from Waze, Zello, flood guages, traffic cameras, locations of everyone involved, locations of ambulances, police, and fire resources, and weather and other public safety information should be created. Automatic geographic zoning and sub-parceling of relief efforts should be implemented. Someone will do this, and thousands of lives will be saved as a result. When the citizens and their government work together, miracles can happen. I know how government works, there will be resistance to this on their part. They want to be in control. But the people on the ground in government all know that this idea is an amplification of their efforts, not a distraction or weakening of their efforts. It makes them stronger. It makes us all stronger.

There are very effective app-writers all over the planet now. Someone could put together the app that I am talking about, and be done before the last person in Houston finally gets back to their own home.

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