The Hackers And The Hurricane

When natural disasters strike, particularly if they are in some of the less remote parts of the world, we see them unfolding in real-time on our television screens. They become a 24-hour rolling news exercise in disaster titillation, each fresh horror ghoulishly picked over by breathless reporters live-telecasting from windswept streets, and endlessly rehashed by a succession of in-studio expert guests.

Then once the required image of a dusty child being pulled from the rubble or a tearful mother describing her daughter being swept away is in the can, a politician somewhere is found in bed with a model or a tinpot dictator rattles his sabre, and the world moves on. The BAFTA or the Emmy is a certainty for this one, did you see the anguish!

Meanwhile on the ground, the situation remains the same. There is no power, no sanitation, no communications, no food, and help seems very far away. In the wake of the recent hurricane season across the Caribbean, there are millions of people whose worlds have been wrecked, and several international governments have faced significant criticism for their lethargic response.

In our world of hardware hackers and makers, we are on the whole practical people. We exist to make, and do, rather than to endlessly talk. Seeing the plight of the victims of Irma, Jose, or Maria leaves us wanting to do practical things to help, because that’s what we do. But of course, we can do nothing, because we’re thousands of miles away and probably lack whatever skills or training are in demand on the islands.

It’s heartening then to hear of just a few moments when our wider community has managed to be in the right place at the right time to offer some help. We’ve had a couple in our tips line lately we’d like to share.

[Csp3r] writes about the Derbycon conference held in Louisville, at which [Carlos Perez] and [Jose Quinones Borreros], information security specialists from Puerto Rico, were in attendance. They mentioned a need for emergency radios, and the community at the conference came together to raise money for much more than just a few radios. $15,000 was raised in all, spent on radios, solar chargers, generators, flashlights, USB battery packs, and tools. This amounted to a significant bulk, so Hackers For Charity helped secure some space on an aid flight to the island.

Then [Bruce Perens, K6BP] writes about a request from the American Red Cross to the ARRL for 50 radio amateurs to help with their relief efforts in Puerto Rico. They will perform the role you might expect of enabling essential communications, as well as to quote the ARRL: “help record, enter, and submit disaster-survivor information into the ARC Safe and Well system”. This is a request unprecedented in its scale, and reflects the level of damage across the island.

For most of us, the best we can do when helping out with these events will be to drop coins into an OXFAM or Red Cross collecting tin and leave it to the experts. But as we’ve noted above, for just a few of us the opportunity to do something a bit more useful presents itself. If you find yourself in that position, make it count!

We’ve looked at the role of amateur radio in public service before, and we’ve even featured it in one or two projects. This emergency box for example has all you’d need to provide this type of service.

Cyclone Catarina image from the ISS, [Public domain].

7 thoughts on “The Hackers And The Hurricane

  1. Please visit and support the new Entrepreneurs for Houston site @ Mission statement:

    The E4H Fund provides individuals, corporations, and foundations with the opportunity to support the entrepreneurial and civic technology initiatives aiding the rescue, relief, recovery, and rebuilding of Houston.

    I live in Houston and am active in the local Maker Movement (we have 9 makerspaces in the area at present) and I’m very proud of my fellow makers here and around the world. We can make a difference!!!

  2. TXRX Labs, the largest Makerspace in Houston (one of nine makerspaces in Houston) recently got a donation from Mattress Mack (local furniture store owner and recent hero) of $25,000 to help in Harvey Relief efforts by:

    1) Building furniture to be donated to relief victims and
    2) Offering free skills classes to the general public in woodworking, housebuilding, etc.

    See full article at

    Excerpts from the article
    TXRX Labs wants to help victims of Hurricane Harvey the best they know how, through making. With a generous donation of $25,000 from Gallery Furniture, TXRX will launch two “Crafters For Good” initiatives to assist in rebuilding efforts.

    Ronnie Devries commented that “This is a very critical time for Texans affected by this storm. Unfortunately, mistakes in navigating the recovery process can be extremely costly and have life altering effects. Our seminars and educational materials are focusing on the urgent need to help citizens avoid those mistakes and to achieve the greatest results with limited resources.” The one-hour seminars will be free to the public and take place at TXRX Labs 50,000 square foot facility this weekend beginning Friday, September 15 through Sunday, September 17, and more sessions and locations will be added as needed. Sign up for the seminars at

    For those interested in woodworking, TXRX will offer a “makeathon” where volunteers produce handcrafted furniture for those who lost these items in the floods. Our team of experienced craftspeople will lead groups of volunteers in our wood shop and welding shop to build basic home furniture for Houston families. People of all experience levels are welcome although volunteers must be 18 years of age or older. The first makeathon will be held this weekend beginning Friday, September 15 through Sunday, September 17. Volunteers can sign up for a 6-hour shift at

    Through the Crafters for Good initiatives, TXRX is bringing together the maker community with those who have been affected by Harvey to build and rebuild Houston.

  3. “In our world of hardware hackers and makers, we are on the whole practical people. We exist to make, and do, rather than to endlessly talk. Seeing the plight of the victims of Irma, Jose, or Maria leaves us wanting to do practical things to help, because that’s what we do. But of course, we can do nothing, because we’re thousands of miles away and probably lack whatever skills or training are in demand on the islands.”

    The practical matter is we (in general) recognize that disasters will always be with us, and have the right resources, in enough quantity, as quickly as possible, for as long as it takes. People are going to be debating the next several years just how effective they were at those goals.

    1. There’s always “Weathermaking”. Ben Bova had a book that I read out of the children’s library in the late sixties entitled “The Weathermakers”. It was about controlling weather, and specifically hurricanes. Though, if I recall the value was related to oil rigs on the ocean, not wanting to close down prematurely but not wanting the damage either. The devastation to the citizenry seemed overlooked.


      1. Interesting the platforms are going to receive damage if production is shut down to evacuate personnel or not. Then again the people who died because of the New Horizon blowout, where rarely mentioned in the press.

  4. Your passion, [Jenny List], is remarkable. Thank you for sharing your enthusiasm for the opportunities presented for makers and hackers everywhere. Opportunities presented to skilled people with resources are fantastic for moving us from award-granting spectators of disaster to people able to do the thing in front of us to make a difference for our neighbors.

  5. Uh well meaning folks? Chances are it’s already to late for most of you to make an immediate difference. Now is the time to start training for the next event. Folks emergency preparedness takes.. wait for it… PREPARATION. Approach the aid agencies who have been doing this for decades, and have a local presence.. Ask them what they need that you may be able to assist in, also tell them what you can offer reliably and consistently to see if it can fit any need they have. Chances are good there may not be a meeting of minds. Just don’t stomp off butt hurt, you want to your best to foster a mutual workingrelationship. Only after I entered emergency preparedness in a minor role official did I learn what I didn’t know. Aid agencies already have planned with corporate partners to have supply lines ready to roll to provide for the immediate needs of survivors. Please don’t jump on the band wagon to send truck loads of supplies into the stricken ares. The vehicles will add to the congestion and history has revealed such donation don’t get used before they are affected in a way to render them unusable, due to the lack of proper storage availability. Don’t forget to weeks after the event to send monetary donations to food bank and aid agencies in the area. Aid agencies distribute monetary donations in the form of vouchers, and these day prepaid debit cards. That way the money hopefully be spent locally stimulating the local economy. And of course don’t forget to prepare for your own needs.

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