Last year, Hurricane Harvey caused $100 billion in losses. The California fires, $13 billion. The Yangtze river flood, $7.5 billion. In 2017, disasters accounted for more than $350 billion dollars in losses worldwide. If we do nothing about it, climate change will certainly raise these figures in the future. Fortunately, there’s a lot we can do.

We have talked before about software that can help emergency services take the best decision possible, satellites that provide vital information to evaluate the damage done after a wildfire or Augmented Reality to help emergency responders. But today we wanted to talk about the measures we can take to prevent the disaster from happening in the first place. To do that, we spoke with John Alexander, founder of Aquobex, one of the partners at I-REACT. The company offers tailored preventive solutions against floods to businesses and insurance companies. They have extensive experience in the business, that’s why they are in charge of organising the exploitation activities.  And, as they well know, prevention can save not only lives, but also a lot of money.

“If you think of floods, even having one or two inches of water into your house has an enormous cost, that oscillates usually between 15000 and 25000 pounds.”, points out Mr Alexander. Prevention measures, like placing barriers against floods, redirecting the water flow or maintaining floodplains can avoid the disaster in the first place. “The figures we are talking about are 8 to 1 benefit.” That means that every euro we put into this preventive actions save us 8 euros in future losses. But sadly, this head-on approach is far from common. “People usually get insurance and take no further actions. But if we do not put preventive measures in place, insurance is not enough. We are still at risk”, clarifies Mr Alexander. “This is a dangerous behaviour, and we need to address that. We need to reward good behaviour: first put preventive measures in place, and then get insurance.”

If a disaster like a flood can flip our lives upside-down, picture how critical it can be for businesses. “There was this hotel in UK that flooded twice in three years.”, recalls Mr. Alexander. “The direct loss of the flood was 500 000 pounds, but they had a ‘business continuity insurance’. This means that the insurance company had to pay for the losses caused by the discontinuity of the business. So they paid 8 million pounds in the first year, and 5 million the second time it flooded.” In cases like this one, preventive measures could have benefited everyone involved: the disaster would have had less impact and the recovery time would have been shorter. Even for insurance companies, offering preventive measures among their plans can be beneficial, as they end up paying less money.

“Of course, what we cannot do is reduce the disaster risk to zero. That’s impossible. There’s always residual risk”, explains Mr Alexander, “What we speak about with insurance companies is that we reduce the disaster risk to its lowest economical value”. To offer this, technologies can help us be as protected against disasters as possible. And what’s more important, they can provide emergency services with the resources they need. Careful analysis of historical data can provide us detailed risk maps of areas, that can be used to design tailored preventive measures. Early warning systems can help emergency services and insurance companies alert citizens and clients if there’s a disaster coming, so they can be prepared. “As they told me once in Mauritius ‘We live in an island. If you tell us there’s a problem, you have to give us a solution: we have nowhere to run. Don’t just scare us, tell us what we can do!’”, details Mr Alexander. “And I think that is the best aspect of I-REACT. Not only do we alert of the disaster. We provide the tools you need to face it.”

A year and a half ago, the region of Piedmont suffered a flood that caused €550 million losses. Back in 1994, another flood devastated the region, killing 70 people and displacing more than 2000. To improve the response against floods like these, we have been developing a set of technologies for emergency responders, citizens and decision makers that will be put to the test for the first time in the Region of Piedmont.  This will be done within a three-day flood simulation exercise that the European Consortium APELL – EUROMODEX has organised in the city of Alessandria, at the core of the Region of Piedmont.

The technological tools we have developed provide protection agencies with services that offer real-time information before, during and after the disaster situation. We integrate and models data coming from European monitoring systems like satellite observations, historical information and weather forecasts, and combine them with data gathered by our new technologies: a mobile app, a wearable, augmented reality glasses and a social media analysis tool, that monitors Twitter to gather real-time information on the disaster situation.

During the three-day drill, international emergency services coming from France, Spain, Belgium and Luxembourg will simulate 25 different rescue scenarios, with a team of volunteers that will perform as families trapped by the rising water levels, people injured in the flood or citizens in need of displacement. The volunteers will test the I-REACT app, that allows them to report real-time information that can be visualized at the emergency coordination services about the flood situation, like geolocation photos.

The rescue teams will be coordinated by the “Settore Protezione Civile e Sistema Antincendi Boschivi” of the Piedmont Region, that will test for the first time our visualisation software. Thanks to this software, the experts at the control room will be able to track the position of the people affected by floods, communicate with them and see the information reported by them, shortening the response time and providing the emergency services with crucial information that will help them take the best decision possible.

When they are fully developed and tested in several drills like this one, we aspire for our technologies to be adopted among the European emergency services. Innovative cyber technologies, like the ones we propose, can provide a more accurate situational awareness and response in flood related emergencies, which improves the response of the European emergency services to floods, and help them save lives.