Irish disaster-response charity restores communications in parts of tornado-ravaged US

8 May 2014

Tornado damage. Photo by Disaster Tech Lab

When tornados hit North America last week, Irish disaster-response charity Disaster Tech Lab had a team on the ground in 24 hours and used satellite technology called GATR ball to restore communications in Kansas.

During previous deployments in the US, Haiti and the Philippines, Galway-based Disaster Tech Lab used conventional satellite equipment consisting of rigid dishes measuring anywhere between 1 metre and 2.5 meters in diameter.

Using rigid dishes, however, creates a logistical challenge.

The GATR ball, which up until now was mostly used by the US military and government, solves that problem by not using a rigid dish but a large inflatable ball that is 2.4-metres in diameter with an internal flexible parabolic dish.

When inflated it looks like a huge beach ball. The design makes for easy transport, assembly and activation. When deflated, GATR ball fits in two cases the size of large suitcases.

Restoring links in a storm-ravaged land


The GATR ball

Disaster Tech Lab deployed the GATR ball together with one of its equipment trailers and a team of volunteers to the town of Baxter Springs, Kansas.

The tornado damaged hundreds of houses, and knocked out electricity and communications networks.

Within hours of their arrival, the Disaster Tech Lab team had restored communications for City Hall, and the police and fire departments. This greatly improved the co-ordination of the overall relief effort.

Next was the municipality’s fibre-optic communications network, which provided internet access to residents, as well as the municipal buildings.

tornado 3

Photo by a volunteer on the ground

Using volunteers from OC&D, a fibre-optic company based in San Antonio, Texas, Disaster Tech Lab restored 80pc of the network within 24 hours. The company also installed Wi-Fi equipment in a number of locations in order to provide free internet access to responding organisations, as well as local residents.

The rising tide of weather-related disasters

Evert Bopp, co-founder of Disaster Tech Lab, said the organisation is better known abroad than it is at home in Ireland.

He said it is crucial Ireland readies itself to meet weather-related disasters in a prepared way.

“We have reached out to the Irish Government before and even had questions raised in the Dáil by Fianna Fáil Leader Micheál Martin but nothing has been forthcoming.

“I predicted over a year ago that Ireland, and Europe, would see a significant increase in extreme weather events and the flooding at the beginning of this year was part of that.

“Ireland is not prepared to deal with these types of events and we want to use our experience and knowledge to improve the level of preparedness,” Bopp said.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years