Hurricane Matthew: can IoT help safeguard us in crisis?

By | 5 minute read | October 14, 2016

A hurricane

The U.S. is still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Matthew, which for two weeks has swept destructive hurricane-force winds along the Florida coast, pushing north to Georgia and the Carolinas. A Reuters report estimates that nearly 900 people have died in Haiti, with 17 killed in the U.S., due to a devastating combination of rainfall flooding, high speed winds, storm surge flooding, and destroyed infrastructure.

When hurricanes hit, the impact is shattering for those caught in the storm. News of an approaching significant weather event sets a series of events into motion – wind-proofing homes, schools and office buildings, panic-buying essentials, evacuating residents, and, once it’s all over, the shockwaves can still be felt among the communities affected. Rebuilding and repair must be done to put towns and cities back on their feet. The financial consequences are severe too – according to data from IBM’s Big Data & Analytics hub, the five most destructive weather events in 2014 caused damage of $17.4 billion worldwide.

We’ve seen how IoT makes a difference in our daily life. But how can we take these learnings and use them to minimize the impact of natural disasters like Hurricane Matthew? Can IoT help, and what can we do to safeguard the future of those worst affected?

Preparing for disaster: how can weather-related insights and IoT help?

Billions of weather reference points collect real-time data that can be analysed to predict developing situations and provide an early warning system in case of approaching danger. This information enables people, businesses and cities to take early evasive action to brace themselves for the storm and try to protect themselves as far as possible.

Enabling swift evacuation

Combining weather-related data insights with traffic data can help cities and municipalities better coordinate evacuation to avoid congestion. When popular routes out of town become congested, connected cars can share information with Traffic Maintenance Centres automatically, helping them determine traffic hot spots, divert traffic flow and prevent delays.

Managing panic-buying

Those forced to wait out the storm as best they can will need to stock up on emergency supplies. Unfortunately the sudden and extensive need for particular items means many stores will run short of stock very quickly. The more data these stores have about how and when people shop, what they’re buying and why, the more prepared they can be. When IoT is internalized into the manufacturing and supply process as well as the buying process, we can do a lot more to ensure stock is available when it needs to be.

Data about developing weather situations combined with IoT-enabled inventory management can help store managers respond dynamically to any given scenario. Tracking through the supply chain can show how much of a given product (battery powered lanterns, for example, water, plywood) is available and how it’s moving.

Pre-storm shoppers have the benefit of being able to buy what they need. There is a business advantage too – removing the element of guesswork is more cost-effective for stores as they will order only stock that is needed, and won’t miss selling opportunities due to running out of essentials.

Reducing the impact on business

A big risk for global businesses is that adverse or severe weather conditions can disrupt their supply chain. Changes in resource availability push up supply costs and bring other costly requirements too, such as the need for back-up power. The ability to predict the location and severity of such conditions enables businesses to take early evasive action to minimize risk – relocating or fortifying infrastructure, and ensuring the availability of core supplies as far as possible.

Keeping safe in the midst of the storm

Few things are worse than waiting to hear from loved ones that they are safe in times of crisis. Damaged infrastructure and communications systems can make keeping in touch difficult or even impossible. Some wearable devices track the wearer’s location and share that information automatically, for example ski jackets that include a personal locator beacon or satellite messenger. Devices like these could make locating injured people simpler, or connect with an app to let loved ones know you’re OK.

Dealing with the aftermath: emergency first responders

Weather-related insights combined with traffic data can provide critical information to help coordinators more efficiently dispatch emergency responders and traffic controllers to target the hardest hit areas first. Wonderful companies like ShelterBox deliver disaster relief in the form of a tent, thermal blankets and groundsheets, water storage and purification equipment, cooking equipment, toolkits and even activity packs for children. Real-time reports identify the worst-hit areas and mean this life-saving equipment can go to those who need it most.

Connected buildings help prioritise repair

Real-time data from buildings paired with advanced analytics can help prioritise repair and maintenance – ensuring that the most critical work is done first. Sensors within a building can identify specific sites of damage, meaning that these are tackled first and saving the work of manual inspectors. There’s a safety advantage too as inspectors will not be required to enter unsafe structures in order to carry out a damage review.

Data collected by these sensors provides valuable learnings into which physical components hold up against severe winds, and which do not. This information is vital in helping to adapt buildings to be hurricane-proof in the future, minimizing future damage.

Insurance: insights for protection

Insurance is a vital safeguard for individuals and businesses alike. Insurance companies that are guided by weather-related insights would be able to share that information with customers, alerting them to upcoming dangerous scenarios and helping them take preventative action to protect themselves and their houses. Accurate, big data of this sort can also help insurance companies better predict risk and allocate funds accordingly, set more accurate pricing for their policies and cross-reference their own data with insurance claims to minimize fraud.

Looking to the future

These are just some of the ways that the IoT may be able to help reduce the devastating impact of disasters. Although it is impossible to totally mitigate the circumstances, insights from the IoT can at least help us learn which strategies for protection work best, where improvements can be made, and what changes we can make to help safeguard our future.