After Building Apps For Harvey Victims, Houston's Techies Set Their Sights On Irma

Alex Konrad | Forbes | September 6, 2017

After more than two days on a boat rescuing upwards of 50 victims of Hurricane Harvey from flooded houses, Matthew Hager decided to try to help his hometown of Houston the best way he knew how: with tech. Though Hager and his friends looked like a ragtag volunteer rescue squad, he’s a web designer by trade. With other volunteers from his design shop Poetic Systems, he built what has become one of the central hubs for information on Harvey recovery, Hager and his crew are hardly alone. As Harvey hit, Houston’s startup community went into overdrive, connecting over a volunteer Slack channel and gathering around impromptu hackathons to build at least 20 new apps and sites designed to provide support to residents, first responders and the city. Now as the city’s tech leaders work on a new long-term relief fund, the urgency has not abated. Indeed, Hager and his friends find themselves in a new race to adapt the tools they slapped together just last week so they can be used in Florida as Hurricane Irma bears down.

A high school dropout with a scruffy beard who describes himself as a gun-loving redneck, Hager sprang into action after seeing coverage of rescue efforts by a group of volunteers from Louisiana who called themselves the Cajun Navy. With his brother-in-law and a few friends they quickly assembled a well-equipped crew with three jeeps, two boats, a truck and an SUV. Next, they announced themselves on the walkie-talkie app used by the Cajuns, Zello, as the Branch Brigade, named after their neighborhood. A woman out of state volunteered to help run dispatch, and when Hager shared his phone number, his phone blew up. The Branch Brigade rescued between 40 and 50 people in the first three days before merging with another group and picking up at least as many in the following three, six people at a time.

Hager left them halfway through to work on relief efforts “at scale.” By the time he and his team started setting up, others in the Houston tech community had jumped into action. At a startup and innovation hub called Station Houston, Station CEO John Reale and his staff had started checking in with their nearly 400 members on Sunday night, the first full day of the hurricane’s landfall. Unscathed from the flooding, Station Houston morphed into a command center with member startups, investors and mentors gathering to coordinate both physical efforts -- like ripping out drywall in flooded homes -- and tech initiatives like emergency hackathons to build tools for what officials and responders were asking for on the ground...