The Take: Saving Lives When Natural Disasters Strike

What’s News

Three separate downpours over an eight-day period in Missouri, Kentucky, and Illinois destroyed crops and homes and left dozens dead, including at least 37 people in eastern Kentucky. The torrential rainfall, which reached four inches an hour at times, caused the worst flash flooding in 95 years in parts of Kentucky, which now faces enormous rebuilding costs.

SAP’s Take

The flooding prompted new warnings from climate experts that the intensity and frequency of heavy rain is likely to increase as a consequence of global warming, along with other natural disasters including wildfires.

While it may not be possible to avoid these weather-related disasters altogether, some data experts, including Michael Lemashov, SAP head of SAP BTP and GTM solution architects, say that the technology exists to anticipate the severity of such events.

This could provide some warning of an impending disaster enabling people to reach safety, saving lives and reducing the loss of costly equipment and infrastructure. “The science is there,” says Lemashov, who is based in SAP’s North American headquarters in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania.

Lemashov and his team began examining the problem in the wake of catastrophic flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey in Houston. The team got as far as designing a proof-of-concept (PoC) solution for Harris County officials in collaboration with the team’s SAP Business Technology Platform (SAP BTP) innovation architects, data scientists, and user experience designers from SAP’s customer innovation and maintenance team.

The proposed solution drew on existing sensor data about water levels around the area and factored in historical data on previous hurricanes to create a prediction model. Lemashov explains: “Based on similarities to other hurricanes, we can start predicting how quickly areas will flood — alerting to the need to evacuate an area within the next two hours, ten hours, and so on. That’s where the science comes in.”

The PoC solution also included a mobile app that enabled citizens to notify authorities of an event, including the type of emergency and where it was happening. The app could then route these requests for help to first responders who could verify the report — if necessary, using personnel from outside the impacted area. This could help to deploy resources while avoiding blocked roads, flooded underpasses, and other hazards.

Unfortunately, the PoC solution wasn’t picked up at that time because of a lack of funding. But Lemashov still believes it has the potential to save lives and mitigate the impact of flooding. “The technological capabilities are there, and we are being pennywise and dollar foolish by not implementing these solutions,” he says.

He adds that “if you think about how much destruction is there and how much we spent on rebuilding, if we instead spent just a fraction of that on predicting and figuring out how to avoid some of the losses — I think a small percentage would pay for it.”

Lemashov also believes that, by working with partners in academia, the app or one like it could be refined. For example, data could be added about how water flows through a particular topography and the technology could be adapted for use in other circumstances.

By monitoring humidity, wind speed, and other variables, it might be possible to anticipate wildfires and pre-emptively douse extremely dry vegetation with water from the air. If a fire starts, the same data coupled with spot personnel reports, could help evacuate those in the path of a fire more quickly.

Paul Taylor, Editorial Director of SAP News Network, SAP
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