Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Helping You Prepare for a Natural Disaster

By: Molly Bull, Senior Communications Manager, Microsoft Disaster Response

The devastating tornados that recently tore through communities in Texas and Oklahoma reinforce the importance of both preparedness and aiding in relief efforts during times of natural disaster. Today also marks the start of Hurricane Preparedness Week in the U.S., as hurricane seasons starts the first of June. The NOAA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, predicts 13 to 20 named storms total, between seven and 11 of which will be hurricanes, and three to six of which will become major hurricanes for the 2013 Atlantic hurricane season. The potential for damage is high, and the need for preparation is even more important. 

So how should you respond? Planning ahead is critical, and technology can play a role in helping people and communities prepare for, and respond to, natural disasters. Following is some helpful guidance about the technology tools available from Microsoft along with how the company is supporting relief organizations that can help communities and responders effectively plan, prepare and provide support during a natural disaster.

Staying Connected 
Social media and texting is a quick and effective way to communicate to friends and family during times of natural disaster. Today, one in five Americans have used an emergency mobile app in times of a natural disaster.

Over the past several years, apps have been created to support a specific disaster or needs of a specific organization. This past January, Microsoft launched HelpBridge, an app designed to help people connect with one another, and with giving and donation opportunities, during any type of disaster. HelpBridge is a free cross-platform mobile application (Windows, Android, iOS) that provides you with the ability to send out status updates to pre-selected contact groups via email, SMS, and Facebook. Through your phone’s GPS capabilities you can also choose whether to share your location in your alerts.

Accessing the latest information about what is happening on the ground is critical to staying informed, both for responders and the general public. Through the ReadyReach Preparedness Portal you can access the latest information regarding a disaster (maps, areas of concern, how to provide aid) as well as support nonprofit relief agencies. The site helps to make communities more resilient in disaster prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery.

During a natural disaster, communication networks can be overwhelmed and access to a computer can be difficult. In times of disaster, Skype can help you stay connected via the internet or a mobile device, providing another way to connect when networks get overloaded.

Safeguarding Your Information
Developing a family emergency plan and keeping it in a safe, secure place is an important part of preparedness. This Microsoft Excel template walks you through the process of creating a comprehensive plan. This plan can be accessed during a disaster by saving it to a cloud drive, like SkyDrive, so you can get to your plan on any computer or smartphone – and even when Internet connectivity fails.

Create a backup for all your most important documents. You can scan documents – insurance information, birth certificate, passport, medical records and other essential documents – and organize them in a digital notebook, like OneNote, so they can be quickly searched to find information you need. Store this notebook in the cloud so it’s available from anywhere in the event that you lose your devices.

Quick and reliable access to your health and medical information is important to ensure the appropriate medical aid during a natural disaster. HealthVault helps you gather, store, use, and share important health information for you and your family by creating an emergency profile. Here you can manage and track your family’s medical contacts, allergies, medication, immunizations, and health conditions. Through the site your medical providers can securely log in and see a full picture of your history and medical needs.

Working Together to Help Those Before and After a Disaster Occurs
Microsoft is committed to partnering with humanitarian relief and disaster response organizations to keep communities safe, informed, and connected before, during and following natural disasters.

  • Esri provides thousands of organizations with software designed to help during disaster response management. The software and mapping technology provides first responders and people on the ground with immediate information regarding natural disaster zones, thus allowing citizens and organizations to make informed decisions quickly.
  • Aidmatrix provides relief organizations with the ability to broadcast stories and highlight needs during times of disaster through their Local Impact Map and NeedsFeed tools. The NeedsFeed shows communities where the most help is needed and how they can assist those who have been impacted.
  • Having a response plan is critical in mitigating the outcome of a natural disaster. The American Red Cross provides extensive preparation guidance and real time status information for various types of natural disasters, including hurricanes. The American Red Cross’s Tornado App provides up to date information about tornadoes, what to do immediately afterwards, and location-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) alerts, allowing citizens to stay informed with the most up to date status information.
  • FEMA has several resources and tools to help prepare for a natural disaster including the ability to get access to real-time hurricane preparedness information through their text-enabled alert system by texting “hurricane” to 43362.
  • Skype has partnered with the UNHCR (The UN Refugee Agency) to create a low-bandwidth Skype client that helps relief workers connect with their families when stationed overseas in hardship locations like Darfur or Pakistan. Luxembourg has employed a similar approach for the disaster relief teams that it deploys to major disasters. The teams are armed with an inflatable satellite that, when paired with Skype, can provide Wi-Fi, instant messaging voice and video chat to aid workers on location during natural disasters.

Visit Microsoft Disaster Response site to learn more about the Microsoft Disaster Response program.

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