Recent flash floods in the North Indian states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh left over 70,000 tourists and pilgrims trapped, with the death toll expected to climb to over 5000. With the Indian government struggling to reach victims trapped in the hilly Himalayan regions, technology came to the rescue.
Recognizing the crucial role of up-to-date information in disaster management, the Indian army launched the website "suryahopes.in" that posted updates on the rescue operations by the minute and also flashed helpline numbers. The site also provided a location-wise list of people stranded and rescued in different areas, which bolstered flood relief efforts. A similar initiative was also launched by Google Finder, which was available in Hindi and English during the crisis. In addition, the Google Crisis Response Map provided quick information on the places affected, relief centers, and road closures. Equally important was the role that technology played in facilitating rescue operations. For the first time in India, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) made a reconnaissance of at least 20 areas that had been inaccessible to the rescue operation till then.
Across the world, in the face of potential natural calamities, technology has played an important role in both disaster preparedness and disaster management. The most important role that technology has to play here is in forecasting. For instance, Australia's national scientific agency CSIRO use 3D flood modeling and visualization to understand flood behavior and minimize damage. They also use bushfire modeling techniques to predict and suppress bushfires. Another illustration of disaster prediction is the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center's (PTWC) analysis of data from a hundred coastal tide gauges and seismographs to detect tsunamis even before they happen. A similar system in the Indian Ocean could have averted the staggering loss of human life in the 2004 tsunami that killed 300,000 people. As a result of this disaster, the Indian Ocean Tsunami Warning System later became active in 2006.
Once a disaster strikes, the focus shifts to disaster monitoring, modeling, and mitigation. Here, remote sensing and Geographical Information Systems (GIS) technology can play an important role in rescue operations. In addition, the use of drones to reach inaccessible areas has been demonstrated. Further, an effective information management strategy is also crucial to disaster preparedness. Here, disaster managers can also leverage the proliferation of mobile technologies.
The new networked world has also changed the manner in which governments plan their disaster management. Now, governments also track social media to improve decision making as part of their strategy to manage calamities. For instance, CSIRO monitors social media for emergency situation awareness. Their software detects any unusual social media activity after a disaster is announced. Large volumes of social media feeds are analyzed in near real time to present the unfolding impact of an incident and help disaster managers devise their emergency response.
Once rescue operations have concluded, technology continues to play a significant part in reconstruction. The application of technology is particularly notable in the area of accurate assessment of infrastructure damage through satellite technology and developing future infrastructure designs.
In recent years, natural disasters have increased in frequency and severity. In 2010, 385 natural disasters killed over 297,000 people and cost the global economy US$123.9 billion. Clearly, technology can play a compelling role in controlling the impact of natural disasters.
Can you think of any examples where technology has facilitated disaster management? Tell us about it here.