Tuesday, September 18, 2018
Business

Tech companies find ways to use platform's services to assist during Irma

National disasters can bring out the best — and the worst — in people. Hurricane Irma was no different.

As the unpredictable storm headed toward Florida, many turned to social media, mobile apps and other technology to check on family members, track the storm's path and prepare their property for a potentially horrific hurricane.

While some sought advice for evacuating, others looked for help if they were hunkering down.

Some Floridians like Debba Smith, 62, of Pensacola, used Airbnb's Disaster Response program to offer a free housing to evacuated families. She offered two of her rental properties, one to a family from Tampa Bay.

"There are no heroes in this," she said. "It's just people trying to do what they can with what they have."

Airbnb, a home-sharing platform with more than 4 million listings around the world, is just one of several tech companies — either through their web service or by direct relief — assisting Floridans and others before, during and after the storm. Hurricane-related services ranged from free transportation and housing to up-to-date information on the storm's track.

RELATED COVERAGE:After Irma, the hard part begins for Florida, Tampa Bay

Steve Howerton, 54, of South Tampa, used a Tampa-based platform Homee, which provides on-demand handyman services, to install Kevlar window shutters to his home.

Homee added almost 1,000 new homeowners in Tampa Bay, and double that statewide, said the CEO Doug Schaedler. He said the company completed 325 job requests within three days.

Howerton said he also downloaded the FEMA app, to help create a hurricane preparation kit, and the Weather Channel app, for real-time updates, and subscribed to the Hillsborough Country emergency text message alert system.

"The use of technology helped us be more knowledgeable," he said. "We can make better decisions on whether we are going to stay or leave." He added people who aren't tech savvy or just didn't care need to "get with the program."

Platforms such as GasBuddy, a site that helps find cheap gas and stocked gas stations, and Waze, a community-based social network for drivers, were useful for the Howertons as they evacuated to Mississippi.

On the way home, Howerton noted, Waze, which allows drivers to submit traffic alerts, provided an alternative route down Highway 19 compared to the more congested I-75.

"It took us 18 hours, but we probably would still be on the highway if we didn't use Waze," he said.

Others downloaded the walkie-talkie app Zello, which can be used as alternative to texting and calling, but also requires WiFi and cellular data.

Zello, which was highly praised in the wake of Hurricane Harvey in Texas, noted more than 1 million downloads of the app early last week, mostly by people in Puerto Rico and Florida as Irma approached. Other reports calculate more than 6 million new users in a week span. The instant radio-style communication platform also features public and private conversations, including group chats, and location services.

Thursday afternoon, Airbnb expanded its Disaster Response program to include free housing options in Tampa Bay for displaced individuals and families and relief workers. Airbnb currently has over 230 listings available throughout the affected areas of Irma.

Airbnb's Global Director of Disaster Relief Kellie Bentz said the platform needs more property listings in the Tampa Bay, along with safe areas in Florida, Georgia and the Caribbean islands. Interested homeowners do not need to be previous Airbnb users. To sign up to host or for housing visit: airbnb.com/disaster-response. The housing placement service is available until Sept. 28.

Ride sharing companies Uber and Lyft offered free rides to and from shelters. Uber also donated up to $400,000 in free rides (use coupon code: TBSHELTER), food and relief and Lyft chipped in $100,000 for relief rides (code HELPFLORIDA).

RELATED COVERAGE: Grocery stores working around the clock to replenish supplies after Irma

In addition to updating family and friends, some social networks have additional built-in features that can be useful during storms. Snapchat has an map location feature, and Facebook allows users to mark their safety after major disasters.

"This storm affected a lot of Florida residents," Javi Correoso, a spokesperson for Uber Florida, said. "It's going to be a long road for the state to recover."

Contact Tierra Smith at [email protected] tampabay.com. Follow @bytierrasmith.

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