A phone app helped save lives during Hurricane Harvey

Your phone can seem like a lifesaver at times. But this story from the Houston Chronicle shows how a miniature computer that can install and run apps literally saved lives. You need to read Holly Hartman's story to understand how anyone with a phone app, no matter where they are, can help when a dire situation happens. It's a powerful tale that just might bring you to tears: both at the dire situation of some of Harvey's victims and how one person was able to step up and make a difference.

Read: I downloaded an app. And suddenly, was part of the Cajun Navy.

It also shows how the things we use every day are now indispensable. The same phone you use to play a game or watch YouTube videos with is also a tool that an amazing group of regular people used to save lives. Let that sink in for a moment: people didn't die because of a smartphone app.

The app in question is Zello PTT Walkie Talkie (opens in new tab). It's well done but not anything particularly special. What matters is that the right people all installed it and did everything they could to let folks in the Houston area know that they could install it and be able to call for help. In the hours before Harvey made landfall, Twitter and Facebook posts telling everyone to install Zello were abundant. We're seeing the same thing today with Hurricane Irma ready to wreck SouthWest Florida, and hopefully, it can make the same difference.

Hurricanes don't discriminate: everyone left behind is at risk.

If you've never been through a major hurricane it's hard to understand what conditions are like. You're essentially isolated and on your own until the storm lets up enough for emergency responders to do their jobs. And there will always be people who stayed back and didn't evacuate. Some because they can't and others who just don't want to. I was in the latter group when Hurricane Andrew happened and spent a few hours trapped in a Circle K (a small convenience store) with four others, hoping the water wouldn't get high enough to drown us all. Even when the water finally stopped rising, we all were stuck until we were able to flag down a rescue boat.

This was before the smartphone age.We had no way of letting anyone know where we were or our situation. Calling 911 during a hurricane is futile because there will never be enough operators and dispatchers to take the calls coming in, and your call for help will likely be unanswered. If you are unfortunate enough, or as in my case, stubborn enough, to not leave when advised you're on your own. It's wonderful that we now have the tools to be less isolated and can hear a friendly voice just when we need one.

If you're in the path of Irma and didn't evacuate to a safe shelter, make sure you have Zello installed. If you're able and willing to help, either in the field or to take calls, please do the same. There are lives on the line.

Download: Zello PTT Walkie Talkie (free) from Google Play (opens in new tab)

Jerry Hildenbrand
Senior Editor — Google Ecosystem

Jerry is an amateur woodworker and struggling shade tree mechanic. There's nothing he can't take apart, but many things he can't reassemble. You'll find him writing and speaking his loud opinion on Android Central and occasionally on Twitter.

  • I think it is the frustration that you can not do anything about it and the desperation to get out that gets to you first. Sitting in the top floor of an apartment complex watching the news reports and the flood waters rise while Harvey rages around you is an experience I do not want to experience ever again. Speaking of apps, nobody is probably going to mention it but ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft turned off their services early when Harvey started, citing safety reasons. I understand how risky it was (plus their fears of possible litigation and backlash from surge-pricing) but I daresay if they had left them on a tad longer, many people who just wanted to get out of the flood-prone areas (myself included) would have done so. Proud of the Cajun Navy and the many selfless Texans who put out their trucks, boats and jet skis. It was wonderful seeing the rescue stories come in and the waters recede. Thank you, Zello...
  • As an Uber and Lyft driver the last thing I would be attempting to do would be drive for Uber or Lyft. I'd be evacuating just like everyone else. There's no surge or prime time high enough to get me to want to drive to bad areas while **** is going down. I have a family to care for.
  • Sure. But not everyone in Houston was evacuating at the same time. For most of Saturday even when Harvey was already bearing down, many highways were still passable and people who lived close to the bayous and the reservoirs just wanted to get out to higher ground less prone to flooding rather than stay huddled hoping the flood would pass. No driver should endanger his/her life for an app. Just pointed out how the shutdown of these services way too early heightened the desperation for people like me who were vacationing with no other means of easy transportation to get out. It was a tough call for everyone, even the drivers who would have wanted to help and I understand this...
  • If you wait till the last minute to try to evaluate that is on you, not on Uber! By the way as soon as they could Uber was out giving free rides to shelters etc.. for those in need. I pat Uber on the back!
  • Not getting what's so special about it. You need Wi-Fi or mobile data to use it. Is it just because it's a local ranged public style app like talk with people within 5 miles of me?
  • It's about saving lives
  • Which doesn't answer his question - yes, you need wifi or cellular data for it to work.
  • plus the app is always running in the background. should give the option to close app ! unless, i missed a setting!!
  • Exactly what I've been thinking each time I see something posted about this app. I think it's great that people were able to use it to save lives, or get themselves saved. But there are many thinking that it somehow works phone to phone without a data connection, which is not true. More care should be taken by the writers of articles like this, and the developer, to make that abundantly clear to people unfamiliar with tech. Often after a hurricane or other disaster cell towers are down, and Wi-Fi unavailable, which renders the app useless.
  • Zello. Not Zillo. One is a walkie talkie, the other is for real estate. LOL Might want to correct the article's contents.
  • Actually.. one is a walkie talkie app, the other is nothing.
    The Real Estate one is actually "Zillow" as you forgot the last letter.
    So YOU might want to check the response's contents.
  • I inderstand people who can't leave but why some who can choose to stay?!
  • As somone that evacuated for Katrina, glad I did. Was no house when me and my husband went back just a Foundation where the house stood. Why people don't evacuate they don't think it will be as bad as the news is saying, or they just think it's going to be a little wind and some water. And their house can take it. The only time you see a hundred percent of people evacuate when there's a fire coming. Unless they have a death wish
  • Evacuation orders were never given. Not for the entire city. You can't evacuate 6.5 million people on a dime. Houston was safer because people weren't caught pants down mid failed evacuation, which is exactly why that order wasn't given. A lot of people weighing in on this situation are removed or have never even lived in Houston.
  • Yep. Houston freeways are designed to be drainage areas in a storm. Imagine those roads filled with people trying to evacuate. The last mass evacuation we had cost over a hundred lives, less died during Harvey in the Houston area. It was the right decision, experts agree. The only ones that disagree are arm chair disaster planners who don't know jack.
  • Just giving my opinion why I believe some people did not evacuate lived in Houston before I moved to Gulfport so I know both City's