For Disaster Recovery, San Antonio’s EPIcenter Seeks Tech Solutions

San Antonio—Matthew Marchetti did what any good leader will during a time of difficulty. As dozens of requests for help poured in from victims of Hurricane Harvey in Houston last year, Marchetti and a few fellow vigilante rescuers decided to organize that scattered information into one single place: a website where people in need could request help, and rescuers could find victims of the hurricane.

The website, now known as CrowdSource Rescue, reflected a maelstrom of need after only a few hours. Hundreds of people had asked for help, and Marchetti had more than 3,500 missed calls on his cell phone—his listed the number on the website as a direct contact for anyone who was stranded. The only problem was that Marchetti and those with him only had two boats.

“My first thought was, “We’re going to be on the news tonight and it’s not going to be a good story. ‘Idiots develop rescue website, don’t rescue anybody,’” Marchetti recounted to a crowd at a summit on disaster recovery this week. “That was one of the worst points of my life. It was subsequently followed by one of the best days of my life.”

As many victims of the storm found the website, so did people with boats too. The number of people who were marked as “rescued” on CrowdSource Rescue kept rising. In total, tens of thousands were saved using the website, the group says.

Marchetti was by no means the only person to use technology to respond to the natural disaster. Xconomy’s Angela Shah documented the effort the Houston tech community made to help as many individuals in need as possible during a series of stories last fall, including articles about a similar interactive map on Google for victims and rescuers, and the creation of Entrepreneurs for Houston.

Disasters are more prevalent now than they have been for the past 30 years, according to Jan Vrins, a managing director for Navigant, a Chicago-based consulting firm. Between 1980 and 2016, the average number of major weather and climate disasters in the U.S. was 5.8. That number rose to 11.6 events for the five years between 2013 and 2017.

“These events will become bigger, and more frequent,” Vrins told the audience at the summit, which was organized by EPIcenter, a group focused on promoting energy businesses and innovation in San Antonio.

EPIcenter organized the half-day forum to discuss technologies and strategies that can help the recovery process from disasters, such as hurricanes or even cyber attacks. Most of the discussion centered around policy changes that need to take place to improve the ability to recover from disasters, as well as personal stories from the disasters themselves—everyone seemed to have one.

But the event did highlight a few technologies, like CrowdSource Rescue. Similarly, Moses West, a retired U.S. Army captain, has developed a machine that produces drinkable water from the atmosphere. West founded the Water Rescue Foundation, which has produced 18,000 gallons of water for Vieques, Puerto Rico, to help the island recover from Hurricane Irma.

EPIcenter is working on advocating for more than disaster-recovery businesses. In April, the San Antonio-based organization announced that it has picked the first two companies to join a its new startup program, called the New Energy Incubator and Accelerator.

Those two startups are Go Smart Solar, which helps homeowners and businesses install solar panels, and Morton Gestalt, a company that EPIcenter says is working on a project to monitor and improve the energy use of buildings. The accelerator is being housed at co-working space Geekdom until EPIcenter’s headquarters, a century-old power plant that was decommissioned in 2003, is fully renovated.

“By focusing entirely on new energy, EPIcenter will help grow this segment of our economy, creating jobs and new opportunities in the region,” said EPIcenter CEO Kimberly Britton in a news release announcing the accelerator April 10.

At the disaster recovery summit, Marchetti provided an example of the opportunity there is to use technology to solve complex, dangerous problems. Since Harvey, he has been contacted by numerous cities and public safety departments interested in potentially using CrowdSource Rescue.

“There is a better way. Call us naïve, call us what you want,” Marchetti said. “Some of these disaster problems are solvable problems.”

David Holley is Xconomy's national correspondent based in Austin, TX. You can reach him at [email protected] Follow @xconholley

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