As the cost of disasters rise, technology solutions with an empathetic approach is the way

Today, technology plays a central role in helping to reduce the loss of life and property during a disaster.

2024 is expected to be another record-setting year for hurricanes, according to experts. These major storms are just one of many catastrophes that affect millions of Americans and the government agencies, first responders and aid workers that rush to help, assess and rebuild when disaster strikes.

The human cost of disaster isn’t the only thing on the rise: This year it is clearer than ever that the economic cost of disaster has escalated dramatically, from the cost of labor and supplies to the impact of inflation on every link in the recovery chain.

How should agencies and aid workers respond to these parallel challenges? Technology is part of the solution – but it’s how the technology is deployed that really makes the difference for survivors.

Technology: the first step

Today, technology plays a central role in helping to reduce the loss of life and property during a disaster, and there are excellent resources for survivors and support workers that are now integral in the recovery process.

Satellite imagery, 3D and thermal imaging cameras, drones, and other remote tools assist pre- and post-disaster to help first responders and loss adjusters determine where resources are most needed quickly and how properties have been damaged. Real time data-sharing apps are also crucial in getting survivors the help they need promptly, whether it’s first aid, temporary housing assistance, or property loss evaluation and estimation.

Ahead of disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its National Preparedness Assessment Division offer digital tools that are easy for aid workers at all levels of government, private and nonprofit sectors to collaborate and execute disaster preparedness effectively. As disasters happen, survivors often can only access information and updates via their personal mobile devices. FEMA also offers digital, mobile-friendly resources for survivors who are looking for guidance in real-time on how to prepare for, protect against and respond to disasters.

Match technology with meaningful outcomes

Having the right tools to respond quickly to the urgent needs of survivors is a much-needed advancement for responders, particularly in context with today’s digital-first culture of immediacy. Survivors expect quick answers; every federal agency, company and nonprofit aid organization has developed technologies that can respond faster, collaboratively or more widely.

But a virtual Swiss Army Knife full of digitally driven technologies doesn’t work unless the organizations that leverage them know how to make their tools work together. They need to work in ways that create positive outcomes for survivors and make their recovery a bit more frictionless.

Empathy is key

Consider not just the physical cost of a disaster but the emotional cost for survivors. Federal responders are already familiar with the collective societal mental strain following the COVID pandemic. Compound the stress humans already feel with the experience of being a survivor of a disaster: Mental health plays a big role in how agencies respond and apply technology to aid their response.

The final piece, then, is approaching each survivor with empathy. A disaster experience is often a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a survivor. Though first and secondary responders may have expertly conducted many recovery processes, a survivor’s experience is unique, real and deeply personal.

It’s important that responders use their technology tools to answer that challenge. Whether through one tool or several in conjunction, digital tools should help with steps like establishing immediate contact with survivors, providing human needs like food and shelter, clarifying each step and each touchpoint in the recovery process, and ensuring survivors have confidence that they can get the help they need. Consistency in showing up for survivors in an empathetic way provides confidence and certainty to survivors experiencing a very uncertain time.

Meaningful outcomes from strategic response

Today, simply having tools and technologies is just one part of the bigger picture of how organizations support survivors of disasters. Responders need to make their tools work together as a copilot while they assist survivors with empathy.

We have seen this approach succeed in the field and federal agencies are successfully leveraging the power of integrated, flexible technology tools to enhance their survivor outreach as disasters approach and unfold. As technology tools become even more responsive and context-aware, an empathetic human response to survivors’ experiences needs to continue as the economic and emotional cost of disaster continues to trend upward.

Steve Powell is executive vice president for Sedgwick and EFI Global.

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