disaster response


Smile for the Bouncing Ball

If you make your living in a dangerous profession like the military, police or disaster response, knowing what’s around the corner can mean the difference between life and death. 

An MIT-hatched startup called Bounce Imaging has developed a new technology to put eyes on areas that are too dangerous to enter blind. The device is called Explorer. It is a softball-sized orb that holds a camera with six lenses pointed in different directions and either visible-light or near-infrared LEDs. Read more and see video of the device in action below.

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Remembering Katrina: Wide racial divide over government’s response
Ten years ago this weekend, Hurricane Katrina roared ashore on the Gulf Coast, killing more than 1,000 people. From the start, the tragedy had a powerful racial component – images of poor, mostly black New Orleans residents stranded on rooftops and crowded amid fetid conditions in what was then the Louisiana Superdome.

In the event of a major disaster, the identification of the victims can be complicated. For a closed disaster, such as a commercial plane crash in the wilderness, the list of passengers can be obtained easily, and thus ante mortem information such as medical records and physical descriptions are relatively easy to acquire. For an open disaster, like an earthquake, a tsunami, or an explosion in a city, the victims are unknown so no ante mortem data is readily available. In either case, in order to make a positive identification, the ante mortem information of the missing individual must be matched with the post mortem information gathered from the body in order to make a positive identification.

This is where these forms come in. These are the Interpol Disaster Victim Identification Forms. They are intended to help streamline and regulate the identification process, which helps especially if there are teams from several different countries working together. The yellow, AM forms are used to record the ante mortem data, and the pink, PM forms are used for post mortem.

The top row of images shows two pages from the AM form. Personal data for the missing person is recorded, along with any clothing or jewelry worn, their physical description, any distinguishing marks like tattoos or scars, and any fingerprint and medical information.

The bottom row shows two pages of the PM form. This form, like the AM form, contains several fields which have to be filled out, each section by an expert in the related field. A description of the recovery, the condition of the body, any personal effects, distinguishing marks, and fingerprints are noted. The information from the medical examination is recorded, as well as any DNA test results and odontological (dental) analysis.

If an AM and a PM form are matched, the white Comparison Form is filled out, and all three forms are joined into the same report. The white form states whether it is probable, possible, or established identity, and which findings suggest this: police investigation, fingerprint, pathology, odontology, DNA, anthropology, or other.

For more info, check out the Interpol website: they have a guide about the whole process, and the forms themselves can be downloaded.

Toshiba has developed a remote-controlled tetrapod inspection robot with camera and dosimeter, designed to investigate risky areas, such as Fukushima nuclear power plants. The multiple joints of its legs are controlled by a movement algorithm that enables the robot to walk on uneven surfaces (like Boston Dynamics’ Big Dog), avoid obstacles, and climb stairs to get access into areas can’t be reached by wheeled robots (such as some iRobot models) or crawlers. It also carries a companion smaller robot with a second camera for constricted locations. Toshiba plans to add the ability to install shielding, stop flows of water. and remove obstacles. (via A Japan-developed robot for disaster response | KurzweilAI)


Books that got wet as a result of the leak on July 4th have been fanned out to dry in areas around the basement. Some have been frozen until we can get to them. We estimate that 3,500 to 4,000 books were affected by the flood. Some will be able to return the stacks in a day or so, others will have to be repaired or replaced. Some aisles on ground west remain closed while we work on getting the books dry, and the messed cleaned up. We hope that everything will be back to normal by the end of the week!



Dutch Architects 3-D Printing Canal House

A team in Amsterdam is working to 3-D print the classic Dutch canal house, a project that marries the city’s traditional architecture with state-of-the-art additive manufacturing.

Their effort is more than a study in futuristic design and building–they’ve got their sights on very real global issues that are set to mount in coming years.

“For the first time in history, over half the world’s population is living in cities,” says Hans Vermeulen, a cofounder of the 3-D Print Canal House project. “We need a rapid building technique to keep up the pace with the growth of megacities and we thing 3-D printing can actually be the technique to provide good housing for the billions of people on this planet.”

See the video and read more below.

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Airbnb Partners with San Francisco, Portland on Disaster Relief

In 2012, when Superstorm Sandy struck the East Coast, thousands of residents were displaced from their homes. In wake of the panic and chaos, Airbnb, an online platform where people list and book accommodations around the world, saw an opportunity to leverage its existing services for neighbors to help neighbors. During the disaster, 1,400 Airbnb hosts — who typically collect payment for accommodations — opened their homes and cooked meals for those left stranded.

With everything that’s going on in Nepal right now, I feel the need to share some important information we just went over in my Disaster Response course.

It is the job of the government, whenever a disaster happens, to coordinate all the relief efforts. Their own, those from NGOs, those from other countries, even those from the UN or WHO. The government of the affected country or region to approve, monitor, coordinate, and keep track of all relief efforts, from water and food distribution to organization of refugee camps.


The thing about a disaster of this scale is that the government is often in shambles. This happened so close to the capitol that what sections of the government are left functioning are going to be completely overloaded. Any normal government will be stretched to the limits, and when the capitol is affected, things are going to be nearly impossible. There are wounded and stranded pouring into Kathmandu, and the city itself has been damaged, meaning communication and travel are going to be limited, so the government not only has to deal with their own city being over-crowded and heavily damaged, they still have to manage hundreds of relief teams all asking to come in. The amount of coordination needed to ensure that there aren’t gaps in relief coverage, and that money isn’t being funneled into the wrong channels, and that the most people are being helped, and that outside relief efforts work with local internal efforts, and that the peace is kept while all this is happening, and that it doesn’t turn to mob rule, and that the government can still manage the rest of the country, and that medical care is being distributed according to not only current need but in anticipation of future need, and that disease doesn’t spread, and that monetary aid from other countries is being properly used–and hundreds more– is absolutely staggering.

And sometimes, under that much pressure and strain, governments crack. Take the Port-au-Prince earthquake from 2010. The government was devastated, as the palace collapsed in the earthquake and aftershocks. Without a functioning government, some agencies couldn’t get in, some came in illegally, some came in only with a blanket go-ahead and no direction as to what needed doing first. Things were in complete chaos.

I’m not saying that’s what’s going to happen in Nepal; I’m bringing this up to point something out.

Who stepped in and took charge in Haiti? The United States Marine Corps. They did not, contrary to popular belief, institute martial law and take over the government. What they DID do was organize the relief efforts in place of the government, which couldn’t do it on their own. They got things under control, eliminated redundancies that drained resources from other needy areas, assisted the government in fielding all the paperwork and permissions that international agencies need to come in and work, helped keep peace UNDER the direction of the Haitian government; then, when the government was once more fully staffed, stable, and capable, they left.

That’s my point in bringing this up.

In the next few weeks, there may be a need for outside assistance to the government. Sometimes, in fact most of the time, that means military support. The military is extremely qualified for emergency management; that’s a huge part of what they do on a daily basis. I’m bringing this up now so that maybe people won’t freak out if that starts happening. It’s not a militaristic takeover of a wounded country; spreading rumors like that is only going to make the relief efforts more difficult. Understanding that sometimes military support, often from other countries, is a part of disaster management will prevent panic that could delay and hinder recovery processes. The military is so often seen as simply soldiers, only called in when there’s war or some strategic value to be gained through violence and oppression. But war and defense of life through combat is only a teeny tiny part of what the military does. They provide structured support to people in need, through peaceful means, and organizational skills. If there’s one thing any military does well, it’s organize. They’re already a body of highly organized, team-working, cooperative professionals; they can get things done more efficiently than a group of volunteers who have never worked together before. So sometimes groups like the UN and Red Cross call upon military personnel to do the groundwork. Armed Forces of all nations are trained in crisis management, and know how chain of command works; so in a situation where the government is stretched to the limits trying to maintain order within its own sovereign borders, management of relief efforts often fall to the Armed Forces, sometimes of other countries.

I just wanted to put this out there for consideration in case military personnel from any country are deployed in Nepal. It doesn’t mean they’re usurping power; they’re just highly qualified to help recovery efforts move along smoothly. And please, if Nepal does call on other countries for aid, or if other countries offer aid and it’s accepted by Nepal (remember, Nepal has the final say in what aid is taken), PLEASE don’t grumble about how other countries should stay out of Nepal’s business. We are all citizens of this world; while we’re not required to assist another country, doing so is not a crime, or “forcing” politically backed aid onto a weakened government. Nepal could easily say, “Get out, we can handle this ourselves.” If aid from the U.S. or Great Britain or anywhere else ends up in Nepal, it is because Nepal either requested or approved it. And I, for one, think it’s a very good thing for countries to help each other in times of need. If we all ignored each other for our own interests, so many more would suffer. We’re all brothers and sisters of one Earth, and just because we have problems of our own doesn’t mean we should be deaf to the cries of others who are also suffering.

That’s just my two cents, and kind of beside the point, but there it is. The main point is:

Don’t get up-in-arms if military support is requested in Nepal. Military doesn’t mean hostile takeover. They’re honestly just extra manpower and crisis management staff to hold down the fort while the Nepali government takes care of business.

At the beginning of the year researchers found that earthquake casualties were reduced by 14% thanks to warning messages sent via social, and we took an in-depth look at the variety of other ways social media was playing an important – if not life-saving – role in disaster relief.

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Full article: Infographic: Social media as the new face of disaster response | Social Media Intelligence 


Meet The CHIMP

Carnegie Mellon University's Highly Intelligent Mobile Platform took third place in last December’s DARPA Robotics Challenge. The team behind the four-limbed highly capable bot will compete against others during this December’s Finals.

DARPA is sponsoring the challenge to develop robots that can help humans respond to natural and man-made disasters in human-built environments. So the machines must be able to navigate very complex, dangerous situations. 

The 50-member CMU team, called Tartan Rescue, built the five-foot-two-inch, 400-pound robot in a bit over a year. They have already been awarded $3 million by DARPA to build CHIMP, and stand to win $2 million if they win the Finals.

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I am a civil engineer

I work for a government agency, so a lot of the damaged transportation facilities you see on the news are my responsibility. Maintenance workers have fixed what they can and now the engineers are coming back in a second wave of recovery, to make sure that we’re up to code. It’s going to take a long time to bring everything back to speed.

Let me stand on my engineering soapbox a little bit: we do NOT have enough engineers or scientists in this country. We simply don’t. If we did have an adequate number, disaster responses and recoveries wouldn’t be so pitiful. Do you know how many plans were in place in case a disaster happened? HUNDREDS AND HUNDREDS. But they’re just plans, no money is spent on actually taking action.

And that’s what engineers do, they take action. They keep society running. Engineers are the original humanitarians. Every single aspect of your life is touched by an engineer who agonized through the math and science and human psychology to make your life better. And nobody in this country knows what an engineer is or does. How effing sad is that? Why should I have to beg money to clean your water or dispose your waste or pave your road or bring you power???? Can someone explain this to me?

Sorry not sorry, I just have strong feels.

Mercy Corps works in some of the poorest communities in western Guatemala — which were at the epicenter of the 7.4 earthquake that struck the country on November 7, 2012. Already living on few resources and in poorly constructed homes, thousands were left with nothing, struggling to find shelter, food and treatment for their injuries. Our teams mobilized within days to reach communities with emergency assistance.

See more photos of our response to the earthquake in Guatemala. 

Katrina: Lasting Climate Lessons for a Sinking City

Part 1 of a 3 part series on climate change and Hurricane Katrina, 10 years later.

This week marks a decade since Hurricane Katrina spun violently toward the coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi, ravaging both states when it barreled ashore on Aug. 29, 2005.

Katrina taught New Orleans and the Gulf Coast many lessons about how vulnerable the region is to natural disaster, especially to sea level rise and storm surge made worse by climate change. But a more complex, man-made problem also threatens New Orleans and it was captured in the indelible images taken in the aftermath of the hurricane, when miasmal flood waters submerged up to 80 percent of the city: as sea levels rise, the Crescent City is sinking.

New Orleans flooded because the levees protecting it broke after the hurricane struck. The water stayed put, however, because the city is in a bowl dipping below sea level — and that bowl is getting deeper, sinking at a rate of up to 4 feet a century, primarily because the surrounding swamps were drained so the metro area could be expanded.

Accounting for the land’s subsidence, the sea level in southeast Louisiana is expected to rise by more than 20 inches by 2050. That, coupled with increased tropical storm intensity driven by climate change — and the inexorable disappearance of the coastal wetlands that act as a storm surge buffer — has put New Orleans in a precarious position in a warming world.

“As sea level rises, the vulnerability of the land that is exposed to the ocean is higher if the land is sinking,” Virginia Burkett, a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report and the chief scientist for global change at the U.S. Geological Survey, said. “The rate of subsidence of the land’s surface here in Louisiana is two to three times the global rate of mean sea level rise.”

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