Hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires — the natural disasters that pummeled various parts of the United States and Mexico in 2017 crippled communities small and large. Collectively, these events killed thousands of people, also knocking out power for survivors. Though these disasters demand the use of grim superlatives — the strongest earthquake in 100 years, the largest and most destructive fires — some scientists argue they merely portend more frequent and destructive events as we continue to experience the effects of climate change.

But the way people and organizations respond to these disasters — indeed, who responds — is also evolving.

Cities rebuild after each event, as they have for generations. But the technology we use for rescue and recovery in the wake of these disasters has changed, empowering designated crews to help save more lives, but also enabling others — from tech startups to mere bystanders — to intervene. Is it ethical for these other parties to participate if they might cause more harm than good? And who should be held responsible if the technology doesn’t quite work as planned?

Who You Gonna Call?

Under ideal circumstances, disaster response comes from a pyramid-like series of organizations. The U.S. National Response Framework (NRF), the federal organization that helps responders across all levels of government coordinate with private, public, and non-governmental organizations, stipulates that the lowest jurisdictional level possible should be the one to primarily handle incidents.

To start, responders and volunteer agencies at the local level handle the emergency and its aftermath. Local police units, firefighters, emergency medical personnel, and rescue workers rush to the site of a disaster to provide necessary aid in the immediate aftermath. If those resources are insufficient to meet those needs, the state government is asked to step in next. Typically, if a state is unable to meet those needs itself, its government will request assistance from other nearby states. If that is also insufficient, the federal government is called to step in. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, analyzes the request and recommends whether or not the government should respond. Once the president pronounces the event a national disaster, FEMA coordinates federal assistance. This includes help from other government groups like the Department of Housing and Human Services, Department of Energy, and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Hurricane Katrina, one of the U.S. government’s biggest disaster response failures, is an example of when that system breaks down. The slow speed at which the federal government responded to the Category 5 hurricane caused more deaths than would have happened with a quick response, experts later determined.

A member of the military looks down on flooded New Orleans streets during Hurricane Katrina. Image Credit: U.S. Air Force

Fortunately, in the decade since Katrina, the government has become much quicker to respond to disasters. FEMA can now allocate resources in anticipation of an event instead of reacting after it happens. Social media ensures that the world can see the full extent of the damage — and get a clear picture if the reaction is mismanaged.

But some things haven’t changed. The government — the lumbering, bureaucratic entity that it is — can only respond so quickly in the event of a disaster. Because local and state governments are still the first line of responders, socioeconomic inequality continues to dog disaster management; less wealthy areas — like Puerto Rico, which filed for bankruptcy earlier in 2017 — aren’t able to rebuild as quickly because they lack the standing resources to do so.

That responder hierarchy, compounded by systemic inequality, often confuses Americans — we expect federal government assistance and technology in the wake of a disaster, though it’s far from a guarantee.

Historically, it’s been difficult to get governments to think about the technology needed for disaster response before the disaster happens because “people don’t want to donate money to those things ahead of time,” Gregory Hogan, a senior staff member at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lincoln Laboratory, told Futurism.

That vacancy has increasingly left room for companies to intervene with both experimental and proven technology.

The Wizards of Puerto Rico

In October 2017, one month after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, more than half of the island was still without power, inhibiting thousands from accessing the internet. Without it, they couldn’t do all the things people need to do online after a disaster: ask for help, coordinate repairs on damaged homes, work, assure their loved ones that they were doing OK, or just stream some music or TV in an attempt to return to normalcy.

So that month, Project Loon, a collaboration between Google’s parent company Alphabet and cell phone carriers AT&T and T-Mobile, launched helium air balloons to bring internet to Puerto Rico. And it worked — the balloons, plus their ground connections, got more than 100,000 people online. Project head Alastair Westgarth wrote in a blog post, “We’ve never deployed Project Loon connectivity from scratch at such a rapid pace.” The company filed for approval from the Federal Communications Committee (FCC), received it, and launched its balloons all on the same day.

A Project Loon balloon in 2013. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This was a major success for the project, but it wasn’t its first deployment. In 2015, Google signed an agreement with the Sri Lankan government to work on providing free internet for the island’s citizens. In February 2016, the tech was being tested in Indonesia, a significant milestone for the project.

If Puerto Ricans had not been in such dire straits after Hurricane Maria, the FCC probably would not have granted that license (an “experimental” one reserved for technology that’s not yet tried-and-true) nearly as quickly.

Alphabet wasn’t the only company to step in to help citizens after the hurricane. Car company Tesla donated solar panels and batteries to power a children’s hospital in San Juan. When Puerto Rico gets its power back, the setup might become permanent, NPR reported.

Much of this technology had performed well in previous tests, but what if it failed in Puerto Rico? Who, then, would be responsible for those unkept promises: the companies themselves? The organization or government agency that permitted the technology’s deployment?

After Hurricane Maria struck, Governor Rosselló wasn’t getting much aid from the federal government to manage the shortages of food and potable water, or to get the island’s electrical grid back online. That left the door open for private corporations to intervene. But Elon Musk and other companies can’t be everywhere at once, and assistance from private companies is never assured. There’s no guarantee that Tesla will have the financial means, or motivation, to step in and assist after the next devastating hurricane. Without legislation in place to negotiate the terms of prolonged support from private parties, what Musk giveth, he could also take away without warning.