RALEIGH, N.C. — In a disaster like Hurricane Florence , when emergency responders need to pinpoint trouble spots where people need to be rescued, other relief agencies that offer long-term help need to know where evacuees fled to escape the danger.
Some of those charities are using a disaster mapping tool recently developed by Facebook to help do that in North Carolina. The tool provides anonymous data to show locations that are shedding people and those that are gaining them. It tracks the movements of groups, but not individuals.
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A nonprofit called Direct Relief, which provides medicine and supplies to health centers that serve poor people, uses the data to find out which vulnerable communities in the path of a hurricane are evacuating and whether people are likely going to new locations with a health center. The agency then can reach out to centers in the new locations to help anticipate medicine they'll need. Direct Relief serves about 100 health centers in the two Carolinas and 1,300 nationwide.
"We can deploy relief where people are going, not necessarily where people have left," said Andrew Schroder, director of research and analysis for Direct Relief.
Humanity Road, which seeks to connect those in need with help and resources when disaster strikes, uses the maps to discover when people have lost communication with the outside world.
Facebook announced the initiative last year for organizations such as Direct Relief, American Red Cross and Net Hope. So far, charities have used the maps in 100 disasters internationally, including hurricanes Harvey, Maria and Irma, said Laurie McGorman, public policy research manager for Facebook.
While Facebook users can see individuals who are asking for help, the relief groups get more organized data. Facebook provides the information for free.
"We're hopeful that we're able to make a difference in how services are delivered and hopefully, save lives," McGorman said.
Puerto Rico's experience after Hurricane Maria has highlighted the urgency of post-disaster medical care.
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After an initial count of 64 Maria-related deaths, the storm's death toll was eventually estimated at nearly 3,000. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine concluded that "interruption of medical care was the primary cause" of deaths in the months after the hurricane struck.
Not all hurricane victims are "slammed in the head by a piece of debris," said Thomas Tighe, president and chief executive officer of Direct Relief. Much of Direct Relief's medication goes for patients with diabetes, hypertension and asthma, and disasters can exacerbate their health problems, he said.
The Facebook mapping offers "a much more complete picture than we've ever had before," he said.
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But both he and Cat Graham, chief operating officer and co-founder of Humanity Road, emphasized that they use the disaster maps as a starting point but not as the only information they use to make decisions about where help is needed.
It helps us listen to the silence," Graham said. "It gives us a live view of where the public may need help with their communications."
During Hurricane Florence, Direct Relief officials learned from the Facebook tool that more people are moving to edges of major cities than to the cities themselves. "We would be wise to direct attention those in the outskirts, which is more likely where people are staying, than those in the immediate downtown of Charlotte," Schroeder said.
When Hurricane Harvey drenched Houston for days with up to 60 inches of rain, Direct Relief discovered that many had evacuated to San Antonio and Austin, Tighe said. That information allowed Direct Relief to reach out to community health centers there quickly and ask if they were receiving patients and what support they needed.