Hurricane Katrina was a tale of three disasters. The first was natural, a violent storm that devastated the Gulf Coast. The second was man-made, the catastrophic failure of levees protecting New Orleans. Together, these disasters killed more than 1,800 people and displaced half a million families. Damages ran into the billions, and the recovery continues even now.

The third was also man-made, and the most maddening: the failure of preparation, logistics, and action at every level. The Federal Emergency Management Agency drew widespread criticism for a slow, disorganized response that bordered on incompetence, and its poor communication and coordination with local and state authorities.

If such a disaster occurred today, FEMA insists it would respond swiftly and efficiently. It points to the leadership of Craig Fugate, whom President Obama tapped to head the agency in 2009. Fugate, unlike his much-maligned predecessor Michael Brown, is a former director of the Florida Emergency Management Division and has extensive experience managing disasters responses, particularly hurricanes.

No less importantly, FEMA has embraced key reforms, not the least of which is the authority to act immediately. Until 10 years ago, the agency had to await a governor’s request for federal aid before jumping in.

“One of the most important improvements we’ve made came as a result of congressional action to authorize FEMA to deploy resources to states before a presidential declaration request has even been made,” says Ted Okada, the agency’s chief technology officer. “If FEMA believes that a situation will require a presidential disaster declaration, we’re now authorized to expend funds out of the Stafford Act to prepare. By pre-staging resources such as water, generators, and staff, we’re able to faster mobilize response efforts.”

FEMA hasn’t faced a test quite like Katrina, but its ability to move quickly has changed how it responds. Even before Hurricane Sandy pummeled New York in October, 2012, FEMA deployed truckloads of food, water, generators and other supplies. Some 900 employees were standing by, primed to provide any assistance once the storm made landfall.

A post-Sandy audit by the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees FEMA, gave the agency top marks. “FEMA prepared well for this disaster, overcame operational and staffing challenges, quickly resolved resource shortfalls, made efficient disaster sourcing decisions, and coordinated its activities effectively with State and local officials,” concluded the report. State and local officials, including New Jersey governor Chris Christie and New York senator Chuck Schumer offered similarly positive reviews.

The change in attitude and policy proved instrumental in setting FEMA on a new course. But technology played an equally important, if somewhat less obvious, role in how the agency and its counterparts at the state and local level, prepare for and respond to a crisis. These changes run the gamut from a comprehensive smartphone app to broader adoption of drones and robots.

Fema-App-Screenshot FEMA

The agency’s embrace of new tech prompted it to formalize the role of CTO, consolidating roles held by various people before Okada came aboard. It was a wise move, given how quickly things have changed in the past decade. When Katrina hit, social media was in its infancy, people still got a lot of their news from television and radio, and Blackberry and Razr phones were state of the art. These days, 40 percent of Americans use their phones to access government services, and 68 percent of them use phones to keep track of breaking news events, according to the Pew Research Center.

“FEMA must be able to reach at-risk populations that get their information from Twitter and Facebook,” Okada says. “We use social media as a platform to get information out, but also engage in widely distributed conversations. Better situational awareness allows us to improve decision making, leading to better survivor outcomes.”

According to FEMA, the app has been downloaded more than 200,000 times since it launched in 2011, and the organization has hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter and Facebook. Social media played a larger role than ever helping FEMA and local organizations communicate to residents during Hurricane Sandy. To combat false information on Twitter during the storm and its aftermath, FEMA created a “Rumor Control” page and has done the same during more recent emergencies.

At the state level, disaster-response teams also are embracing social media. Bryan Koon, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, says the agency has streamlined statewide communications during events and created a two-way street of communication.

“The technology of the last 10 years it has enhanced the information flow both to and from our stakeholders,” Koon says. “Staff are watching Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media so that we can craft our messages appropriately. We use it to gather information not just to push information out to the public.”

Other changes since Katrina have helped FEMA disseminate information in creative ways. OpenFEMA makes the organization’s datasets available to app developers via APIs. Developers have used that data to create emergency dashboards to help cities prepare for the worst. FEMA has also created data-visualization tools with the datasets.

Changes in technology led to a fundamental change in how local, state and federal agencies communicate with each other. Take Louisiana, for example. The state created the Louisiana Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness in 2006 to coordinate the response to a disaster—a task formerly left to state police and the National Guard. The change prompted more focused and efficient responses, which are led from the State Emergency Operations Center in Baton Rouge, by bringing together local, state, and federal authorities.

Of course, making sure all those people can communicate in the field is no less important. During Katrina (and, for that matter, 9/11), first responders often found they couldn’t talk to each other because different agencies had different communications systems. State and federal grants and other funding have allowed Louisiana to finance more than $180 million in communication upgrades that covers 79,000 first responders and 12 million push-to-talk messages monthly. The statewide system includes mobile communication towers, signal repeaters, satellite phones, generators and more.


Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR)

Looking beyond communications technology, FEMA and its counterparts at the state and local level are embracing small robots and drones in search and rescue and damage-assessment operations. They’re quick and easy to transport and deploy, and can reach places dogs, humans and helicopters cannot or will not go. Authorities deployed drones during Katrina and relied upon rolling robots to search for people trapped in buildings.

But the technology has become more common, and authorities work closely with the likes of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search Search and Rescue and its Roboticists Without Borders program to line up the right tools and people for the job. “I feel like when a disaster happens, we’re a dating service,” says center director Dr. Robin Murphy.

The technology in these robots has advanced significantly in the decade since Katrina; wireless communication systems are more robust, imaging capabilities more advanced, cameras more advanced. We’ve also seen the rise of aquatic drones. “The thing that we have now that we didn’t have then that would have been super useful is the marine vehicles,” Murphy says, noting that 80 percent of the world’s population lives near water. “When you think that we had how many miles of coastland, and all the bridges, and of course the levees.”

Although some states—including New Jersey and Texas—maintain their own search and rescue robots, FEMA outsources such work. The rapid evolution of the technology, not to mention the cost, makes it impractical for the government to keep a fleet. A top-shelf search-and-rescue drone or robot can reach $70,000. “They don’t want to think of it as a very expensive cell phone or computer that needs to be replaced in a few years,” Murphy says.

Besides, FEMA wants to focus on technology anyone can use in an emergency. The app, the open datasets, and the social Web are just the beginning. With a rapidly growing pool of data from “Internet of Things” devices—smart smoke detectors, fitness monitors, home appliances, and security cameras—Okada says the agency is exploring ways to analyze that “big data” pool in order to provide assistance in the future.

“We will build appropriate and sustainable technology around the survivor and not the other way around,” Okada says. “We will continue to focus on survivor-centric design. We’ll always try to put ourselves in the mind of a survivor, whose world extends as far as they see, as far as they can hear, as far as they can walk.”

Go Back to Top. Skip To: Start of Article.


The New Tech of Disaster Response, From Apps to Aqua-Drones