A natural disaster strikes. Soon, rain, flooding and fire wipes out the power grid, phone and internet systems that allow people to turn on lights, run clean drinking water, use cellphones and access medical records.

Yet, innovative technology solutions are allowing relief organizations and governments to better prepare and respond to events, while saving lives and reuniting families. Advanced tech is helping relief workers with damage assessment, communication and meeting basic needs like food, shelter and sanitation.

On September 1, 2019, Hurricane Dorian was the worst natural disaster to ever strike the Bahamas. Amazon Web Services Disaster Response Program volunteers flew in to hard-hit areas to help nonprofit, NGO and government customers. AWS Disaster Response team members set up free Wi-Fi, data and internet access at more than 40 medical facilities, relief shelters and community locations, working with NetHope, a consortium of nonprofits.

In extreme disasters, Amazon’s cloud division, AWS, deploys technology to support relief organizations working to get back on the grid. For five recent disasters, including Hurricane Dorian, AWS assisted with the disaster response by deploying employees who volunteer to assist with such projects. After receiving specialized training, the volunteers assist with major natural disaster responses for up to two weeks at a time.

In the Bahamas, high-resolution images of the most damaged islands were rapidly delivered to humanitarian workers and decision-makers using an AWS device called a “Snowball Edge.” AWS employee volunteers brought the Snowball Edges to the Bahamas, then trained nonprofit staff on using the device.

An AWS volunteer helps restore connectivity at a local health clinic in Abaco. (Amazon)
An AWS volunteer helps restore connectivity at a local health clinic in Abaco. (Amazon)

Well-suited for tough conditions, a Snowball Edge can store and process encrypted information in a tamper-resistant rugged case that’s rain and dust resistant. The size of a roll-on bag, the device weighs under 50 pounds, so it’s easy to take on planes.

Advertising

“In a disconnected environment or one with low connectivity, a device like this allows the ability to bring computing power to support large-scale efforts,” says Maggie Carter, AWS’ disaster response lead. She came to AWS around 2 ½ years ago, after working for UNICEF USA on strategic partnerships supporting innovation and technology in humanitarian efforts.

Carter explains that 10 years ago, fieldworkers would’ve mostly been putting pen to paper, and trying to communicate reliably with headquarters using a cellphone or a laptop. Most data would’ve been crunched back at headquarters, with a resulting time lag due to the challenge of getting critical recovery information including damage assessments, supply needs and survivor information in an off-the-grid environment.

Planning before the storm 

Advanced technology can assess a potential disaster’s impact on a community, and the necessary next steps — even before a hurricane makes landfall — such as the need to ready a website for increased traffic before a natural disaster, or even improve early warning systems.

For the Caribbean nation of St. Kitts and Nevis, AWS designed a “resiliency solution,” should a Category 5 hurricane strike the island. The St. Kitts and Nevis government identified criminal justice and health care system data that needed to remain accessible and operational. AWS then stored critical data sets in the cloud and loaded onto a Snowball Edge that agencies retain on-site throughout hurricane season.

AWS Disaster Response Program worked with Humanitarian OpenStreetMaps Team to host “mapathons,” which mapped some of the developing world’s most vulnerable places. These maps provided local and international NGOs with the real-time information necessary to respond to flooding in India and the ebola crisis in sub-Saharan Africa.

AWS volunteers used drones to assess damage on Abaco Island in the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian. (Amazon)
AWS volunteers used drones to assess damage on Abaco Island in the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian. (Amazon)

After the storm

If and when disaster strikes, having a tech partner like AWS to take care of critical data and technical services and hardware frees relief organizations to focus on getting food, water and shelter to disaster victims.

To help the Red Cross deal with increased call-center demand after Hurricanes Harvey and Florence (and not enough technology or volunteers) AWS offered its “virtual call center.” More than 200 Amazon employees worldwide volunteered and answered calls for assistance and about missing loved ones.

Employees in Singapore were able to answer apprehensive calls from halfway around the world, in the Carolinas. “Employees truly cared,” Carter says.

“A job with purpose is my North Star,” she says, regarding helping mission-critical organizations prepare and respond using technology tools and internal expertise. She points out that everything designed, tested and produced by the AWS disaster response team is based on customer needs and priorities.

“Our work and technology has a purpose. That’s one of the most satisfying pieces.”

Amazon’s disaster relief and response efforts use Amazon’s vast operational excellence, innovative technologies and worldwide logistics network to provide fast and effective support to worldwide operations fighting large-scale natural disasters.