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Science & Technology

Technology Helps Motorists Maneuver In A Natural Disaster


So it used to be that when a storm hit, the only way to evacuate was to hop in a car with a map and hope for the best. Now, though, there is so much technology, it's almost overwhelming. NPR's Jasmine Garsd has been looking into which options actually work.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: It was Twitter that showed a woman named Emily Streets (ph) the way - literally. She was in Los Angeles last year, and one of the worst wildfires in California's history was raging. She opened Waze, a navigation app owned by Google, to figure out how to get to work. Waze instructed her that the fastest route was the 405. The problem is, it only looked fast. The 405 was actually closed.

EMILY STREETS: The 405 goes through, like, a hilly area and with a lot of brush and bushes, and it was all on fire.

GARSD: Streets is one of several Californians who had this problem. And like a good millennial, she took to Twitter to find out what was going on. Following instructions on Twitter, she was finally able to get to work. Oddly enough, last week, Streets found herself in a somewhat similar conundrum. She was working in South Carolina as Hurricane Florence approached. Streets hopped into her colleague's car. He pulled up Waze, and Streets warned him.

STREETS: Yes, I actually had that conversation of saying, like, I've stopped using Waze. It never - it always wants you to take crazy side routes and impossible left turns.

GARSD: This is a question for millions of Americans in the path of natural disasters. Of all the technology available, what should you use to help you get through?

DANIELLE SOSKEL: Working in something like a fire, which is super dynamic and constantly changing, is obviously a lot harder to keep up to date.

GARSD: Danielle Soskel is a program manager for Waze. Soskel walked me through all the things Waze was doing to make their navigation system as accurate as possible ahead of Florence. Users can press the help button in the app to find nearby shelters. Soskel says Waze has worked closely with officials to update what areas are flooded and off-limits. And they also have over 300 volunteer editors.

SOSKEL: These are entirely volunteer people who come and work and make sure that their local communities are updated with accurate information and that their communities are safe.

GARSD: Other tech firms also stepped it up for Florence. Airbnb offered free housing for evacuees. And then there's CrowdSource Rescue, which started during Hurricane Harvey and pairs up volunteer people in need of rescue. Spokesperson Leah Halbina says that as the storm approached...

LEAH HALBINA: We were working closely with the New Bern police department and fire department. And then things are starting to move closer to Wilmington and Myrtle Beach.

GARSD: The technology isn't infallible, but it helps. As for Emily Streets, who was wary of using Waze again during Florence evacuations, she says her colleague insisted.

STREETS: He said - you know what? - he had no problems with it. He trusted it. And so I was like, OK.

GARSD: They all got out safely. She says she's ready to give the technology a second chance.

Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANATOLE'S "OUTGROWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.