Hurricane Disaster Spotlight: Could UrtheCast Footage Help?
Wednesday, May 16th, 2012
When Hurricane Irene began bearing down on the mid-Atlantic United States late last August, thousands of coastal residents heeded warnings and headed west, filling hotels and motels along Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to capacity.
In one hotel, guests filled the breakfast dining room, glued to the television. When it came time to close down the breakfast room, hotel general manager Jewel Thomas didn’t have the heart to shoo the guests out. They were simply seeking the companionship of those with shared fears — as well as any information available on what was happening back home. “Whatever they needed to do – they weren’t bothering anybody,” Thomas told the Staunton News Leader.
On the coast, the small fishing town of Poquoson, Va., had been ordered to evacuate. Most residents didn’t go far. When a captain with the Virginia Marine Police went to dinner at the nearby hotel he’d evacuated his family to the night before the storm, he recognized almost every face in the restaurant as one of his neighbours. As he walked through, resident after resident asked him the same thing: When the storm’s over, and you’re on patrol, check my place and see if it’s still there.
That’s the thing about hurricanes. Often the scariest part only begins when the storm is over and the harrowing questions emerge: What’s the damage and where? And when will it all be okay again?
While nothing can make these moments easy, we’ll soon have more dynamic technology that can help. For both residents and emergency responders, real-time, high-definition video of the “big picture” of the storm damage could be invaluable.
For residents who have stayed, knowing what the immediate surrounding area looks like could be key to finding safe routes out of the neighborhood — the last thing you want is to try to escape down a path blocked by trees, debris, water, or live electrical lines downed in the storm.
For residents who evacuated (always the smart choice), seeing what ‘my neighborhood’ — or what grandmother’s neighborhood — looks like can provides an important psychological comfort, even if the sight is ugly. Knowing is always better than imagining.
But there are practical benefits, too. In the immediate aftermath of a storm, emergency responders could use the information to target areas that might still be in need. Government planners could see which areas are hardest hit and determine when communities or neighborhoods flooded by rising storm tides are safe to venture into. Later, insurance companies could see where to send agents to assist residents.
One of the hardest parts of a hurricane recovery is the restoration of electrical power. It’s never soon enough. With better information, power companies could not only delegate repair equipment more efficiently, but could also show frustrated residents the massive damage repair crews are facing.
And, after a few days without power, just seeing a power truck or hearing that a repair crew is in your area can do wonders to lift hot and flagging spirits. Imagine if you could fire up your smart phone or your laptop (hint: remember to find your car charger) and see the crews as they work!
As for governments, documenting damage after a disaster can be important to convincing federal and state authorities that damage was severe enough to merit emergency funding.
Because sometimes those big storms can be huge. And every little bit helps.
By AJ Plunkett
AJ Plunkett is a freelance writer in Virginia with experience in covering defence and aerospace industries, as well as the military. AJ blogs via Contently.com.