Trustworthy Disaster Response: Technology, Policy, and Society

Trustworthy Disaster Response: Technology, Policy, and Society

Authors: Ritwik Gupta, Shankar Sastry, Janet Napolitano

Natural disasters are increasingly common around the world and occur unexpectedly, leaving communities in distress and requiring swift and effective responses. As natural disasters such as fires, floods, and tornadoes unfold, the trust between citizens and their government, and trust among citizens themselves, is critical to shaping the outcomes of disaster response efforts.

Trust is multifaceted, encompassing both the reliance on societal structures and the confidence in the technologies and policies that facilitate disaster management. This paper explores the importance of trust in disaster response, examining the interplay between technology, policy, and society. By analyzing the agencies, technologies, and policies involved in disaster response, especially in multi-party settings such as joint agency responses, we aim to shed light on the uncertainties associated with their outputs and how they influence the actions of affected populations.

In November 2022, Berkeley’s Center for Security in Politics (CSP) convened a group of technologists, disaster response personnel, and policy makers to discuss the interface of trust during natural disaster response. In this paper, we provide an analysis of the discussions, historical challenges, and best practices for maintaining trust during society’s most chaotic times.

Before a Disaster: Forecasting

Before a disaster strikes, accurate forecasting and early warning systems are essential to inform and prepare communities. Agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) play a vital role in monitoring and predicting the occurrence of natural disasters. These agencies employ advanced technologies, data analysis, and expert meteorologists and seismologists to gather and interpret information about weather patterns, river levels, seismic activity, and other relevant data. By analyzing these indicators, they provide timely alerts and forecasts to the public, emergency managers, and decision-makers. Increasingly sophisticated technology could offer earlier warning for alerts, preparations, and evacuations to save lives and property and protect vital infrastructure.

NOAA’s National Weather Service, for instance, issues weather advisories, watches, and warnings, helping communities anticipate severe weather conditions, such as heavy rainfall associated with atmospheric rivers. The USGS monitors river gauges, seismic activity, and other geological data, providing valuable insights into potential hazards.

Coordination across agencies is critical before disasters strike. With some overlapping responsibilities, expertise, and authorities, understanding what information and aid each agency is expected to provide is critical, as well as establishing clear delineations of responsibilities and scopes. As an example, the California National Guard, CAL FIRE, and the California Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) meet at the start of every year to forecast, “wargame,” and extensively plan for the upcoming summer fire season.

Citizens place trust in the expertise of these federal and state agencies and their ability to deliver timely and reliable forecasts, warnings, and instructions, all crucial in enabling preparedness efforts. When it comes to natural disasters like atmospheric rivers, timely and accurate information is essential for individuals, communities, and government agencies to make informed safety decisions around evacuations, infrastructure resilience, food, shelter, water, communications, and more. Maintaining the trust of the populations these agencies serve is achieved primarily by ensuring that forecasts produced for the public are reliable and easy to understand.

Moreover, government agencies at all levels rely on these forecasts to implement effective disaster management strategies. The trust in the accuracy of these forecasts allows governments to activate emergency response mechanisms promptly. They can allocate resources, mobilize personnel, and coordinate evacuation efforts to ensure the safety of their constituents. This mutual trust also aids in the efficient deployment of emergency services, such as firefighters, law enforcement officers, medical teams, and search and rescue personnel.

By placing trust in the agencies and their personnel, communities and governments can make informed decisions about when and where to evacuate, where to establish emergency shelters, and how to allocate resources effectively. This trust also encourages collaboration between government entities, allowing them to work together seamlessly in disaster response. It enables the establishment of clear communication channels to disseminate critical information, issue public warnings, and provide urgent updates on rapidly evolving disasters.

During a Disaster: Local and State Governments

The relationship between citizens and local and state governments becomes particularly significant as a disaster unfolds. The actions of local and state agencies encompass coordinating and mobilizing resources, emergency planning, maintaining warning systems, conducting search and rescue operations, ensuring public safety, and restoring critical services. When citizens trust their government’s response, they are more likely to follow instructions, cooperate, and contribute to a more efficient, and potentially life-saving, disaster response.

History provides many examples how the breakdown of this trust has resulted in catastrophic outcomes. A prime example of this breakdown was the inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the disastrous aftermath of which led to widespread reforms at all levels of government.

The Hurricane Katrina response was beset by delayed and insufficient evacuation efforts. Despite advance warnings about the intensity of the storm and the likelihood of post-storm flooding, evacuation procedures were outdated and inefficiently executed, leading to many residents and whole swaths of the city of New Orleans left behind in the aftermath. Evacuation procedures were not created with a hurricane of such magnitude in mind. Exacerbating this issue was the lack of transportation and coordination to evacuate vulnerable populations, including the infirm, elderly, disabled, and those without transportation. These breakdowns in basic evacuation procedures led to a corresponding breakdown in trust between citizens and responsible local and state agencies and resulted in the loss of more than 1,800 lives, many avoidable.

The failure of critical infrastructure, most notably the city’s levee system, compounded the challenge. Improper inspection procedures and a lack of adequate forecasting led to the breach of levees that caused widespread flooding to the below-sea-level city, leaving people stranded on rooftops and without access to food, water, medical assistance, or a way out. Combined with a fatally slow and poorly executed rescue effort, there was a widespread loss of trust in the government’s ability to address a crisis effectively.

Communication breakdowns played an important role in the erosion of trust. The dissemination of accurate information to citizens and coordination between different government agencies at the federal, state, and local levels was lacking, leading to confusion and uncertainty among the affected population.

The lessons learned from the failures of the response to Hurricane Katrina have since shaped reforms in disaster management and response policies, emphasizing the need for better coordination, improved communication systems, and proactive measures to ensure timely and effective deployment of resources and assistance to residents during times of crisis.

Other examples illustrate where the response of local and state governments has built trust and garnered appreciation from citizens. The response to the wildfires that frequently ravage California demonstrates the importance of well-established emergency management structures. Agencies like CAL FIRE, with its extensive experience and expertise in managing wildfires, have earned the trust of the public through their proactive approach and effective coordination. During the 2020 wildfire season in California, CAL FIRE demonstrated its capability and earned tremendous public trust through effective wildfire management. For instance, in the CZU Lightning Complex Fire that impacted Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties in 2020, CAL FIRE promptly responded to the rapidly spreading wildfires, quickly mobilizing firefighting crews, air resources, and ground support to contain the fire’s progression.

CAL FIRE implemented timely evacuation orders, enabling residents to evacuate safely before the fire encroached on their communities. Joint all-agency commands facilitated a robust and unified response. Through effective communication, CAL FIRE provided beneficial updates on current fire behavior, evacuation routes, and resources available to affected communities, ensuring that residents obtained the necessary information to make informed decisions. CAL FIRE’s proactive approach to information dissemination, swift actions, and successful containment efforts contributed to minimizing the impact on people and property, as a result, building and reinforcing public trust in CAL FIRE’s abilities to manage wildfires.

State-level agencies like Cal OES serve as the central authority for emergency management, providing additional support and coordination. Their role in facilitating resource allocation, activating mutual aid agreements, and working closely with federal agencies like FEMA demonstrates the important interconnectedness of various levels of government in disaster response. By maintaining transparent communication with citizens and other agencies, these entities foster trust and ensure that resources are distributed equitably to areas most in need.

The involvement of NGOs, including the American Red Cross, also plays a crucial role in disaster response. These organizations mobilize personnel, supplies, and expertise to provide immediate assistance and relief to affected communities. The presence of NGOs on the ground, setting up emergency shelters, providing food, water, medical services, and emotional support, helps bridge an immediate gap between governmental response and disaster victims. These organizations provide critical resources that are not commonly provided by the government, such as mental health counseling and legal advice. Their commitment to serving the affected population contributes to the restoration of trust and instills a sense of community resilience.

After a Disaster: Recovery

Government agencies assume a critical role in rebuilding communities and facilitating the recovery process. Their efforts extend beyond immediate response and encompass long-term planning, resource allocation, and collaboration with various stakeholders. One notable aspect of post-disaster recovery is rebuilding infrastructure, vital for communities to regain functionality and normalcy. Government agencies take charge of rehabilitating roads, bridges, power grids, water systems, and other critical infrastructure.

For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, which struck the northeastern coast of the United States in 2012, the Department of Transportation played a pivotal role in supporting recovery efforts by providing over $29 million through waivers, permits, and grants for the repair and reconstruction of damaged transportation infrastructure in affected regions. The hurricane caused widespread destruction to roads, bridges, tunnels, and public transit systems, severely disrupting transportation networks and impeding the movement of people and goods.

Housing assistance is another crucial component of post-disaster recovery, as many individuals and families are left displaced. Government agencies work to provide temporary and permanent housing solutions to support those affected. FEMA plays a pivotal role in offering housing assistance programs, including mobile homes and rental assistance to help individuals find shelter and rebuild their lives. By providing a safety net for displaced individuals, these programs contribute to the stability and well-being of affected communities.

Financial aid and grants play a significant role in empowering individuals and businesses to recover from the financial impact of disasters. Government agencies, such as the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), offer low-interest loans to homeowners, renters, and businesses affected by disasters. Such loans enable individuals to rebuild their properties, replace damaged belongings, and restore livelihoods. By providing financial support, government agencies contribute to the economic recovery of communities and foster resilience in the face of adversity.

Community development is another essential aspect of post-disaster recovery. Government agencies collaborate with local communities and organizations to develop comprehensive recovery plans addressing the specific needs and challenges of each affected area. This collaborative approach incorporates community engagement, technical assistance, and allocating resources to support sustainable and resilient rebuilding efforts. Initiatives may include designing resilient infrastructure, promoting affordable housing options, and fostering economic revitalization.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, for example, the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA) was established to coordinate the state’s rebuilding and recovery efforts. The LRA worked closely with federal, state, and local agencies to develop comprehensive recovery plans, address housing challenges, and support economic redevelopment. This collaborative approach ensures that recovery efforts are tailored to the unique needs of each community, promoting a more inclusive, effective, and trustworthy rebuilding process.

Prolonged disaster response timelines have led to public mistrust in disaster management procedures. For example, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 caused widespread ecological devastation off the US coast. The US government coordinated a massive response to the spill by deploying over 4,000 disaster management personnel to the Gulf states to organize clean up, laying miles of protective buoys, and relocating all available vessels to skim oil. Yet, due to BP’s inadequate mechanisms to respond to oil spills or measure the size and flow of the leak, the leak continued for months before finally being contained. Resulting litigation spanned six years before a settlement to compensate victims was reached by which time many had already suffered life-altering consequences.

It is critical for governments to build and maintain trust through all phases of a disaster. Citizens rely on accurate information and timely execution of plans to stay safe during these catastrophic events. Likewise, governments rely on citizens reacting in predictable and compliant ways to properly execute their functions. Trust is the glue that binds these operations together.

Trustworthy Technology

Technology plays an increasingly critical role in disaster management, communication, and response, enabling governments to efficiently communicate with citizens, helping individuals to navigate challenging situations, and facilitating communication between government agencies and the public. Technology also enables citizens to communicate with each other and with their government, alerting each other to areas of distress, resource needs, and emerging threats. Yet, trust placed in technology during disasters presents its own challenges.

Technology Used by the Government

Government agencies generate a tremendous amount of information during disasters, most of it directly relevant to citizens. Yet much of this data is not produced in formats accessible to or understandable by the general public. Government is therefore responsible for creating and leveraging technologies to make all portions of the disaster management cycle transparent to the public.

For example, evacuation dashboards, such as those implemented by Cal OES, provide real-time updates on evacuation zones, shelter locations, and road closures. Cellphone alerts have become a powerful tool in emergency communication. Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) allow agencies to send geographically targeted messages to individual cell phones. These alerts provide immediate, actionable information to affected populations.

For those without cellphones or cell service, or if a message needs to be broadcast as broadly as possible, public safety radio systems and European-style hi-lo sirens play a crucial role in communicating urgent information to the public. Hi-lo sirens produce an unnatural sound to prompt the population to tune into media coverage for more information immediately. Public safety radio systems repeat messages about evacuation orders or upcoming hazards to citizens on frequencies that are widely known, traditionally AM broadcasting. Closed public safety radio frequencies allow first responders and government officials to communicate with each other efficiently, ensuring coordinated response efforts.

Technologies such as the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), managed by FEMA, integrate various alert distribution mechanisms under a single architecture, allowing agencies to distribute messages to phones, electronic billboards, radio, and to the Internet with ease. Advances in communication architectures such as IPAWS drastically reduce the proliferation of conflicting messages during chaotic episodes, increasing trust in governmental operations.

Increasing public awareness of these technologies remains a challenge. Many digital solutions are opt-in or require access information that can be difficult to find quickly. Governments must prioritize public education and awareness campaigns to ensure individuals understand how to access and respond to alerts and utilize the available resources during disasters – similar to campaigns to reinforce familiarity with 911 and 311 emergency resources. Additionally, it is crucial to provide multilingual support and accommodate individuals with disabilities to ensure inclusive access to emergency communication technologies, for everyone’s benefit.

Not all jurisdictions have the same level of access to these technologies. Funding limitations, infrastructure constraints, and regional disparities influence the adoption and availability of advanced communication systems. Addressing disparities requires a concerted effort from government agencies to allocate resources and collaborate with local communities to bridge technological divides and ensure equal access to critical disaster communication tools.

Technology Used by People

Individuals leverage various technologies to navigate and respond to disasters. Mapping apps, including Google Maps and Apple Maps, provide real-time traffic updates, evacuation routes, and alternative routes. These applications help individuals make informed decisions about travel plans, avoid hazardous areas, and reach safe locations.

Cellular connectivity technology underpins most preparedness solutions during disasters, enabling individuals to stay connected with loved ones, access emergency information, and communicate needs to authorities. Unfortunately, natural disasters often cause cellular networks to become overwhelmed or knocked offline. To minimize panic and ensure an organized response, the government must develop contingency plans to bolster and reset cellular connectivity quickly during disasters. Agencies have experimented with rapidly deployable portable 5G networks for this use. Additionally, people have been purchasing satellite communication technologies, such as Starlink antennas, which can be used on the move.

Navigating Disinformation and Misinformation in the Digital Age

Disinformation and misinformation are an increasingly common concern during disasters, reducing trust that people place in government and their fellow citizens. False or misleading information can spread rapidly, creating confusion and hindering response efforts.

A notable example of disinformation occurred during Hurricane Harvey in Texas in 2017, when unverified reports of sharks swimming in the flooded streets of Houston went viral on social media. The sensationalized claim caused unnecessary panic and diverted attention from legitimate rescue efforts. These unfounded reports only served to spread fear and mistrust among affected communities.

Conspiracy theories and finger-pointing are also prevalent during disasters. Following Hurricane Katrina, rumors spread that the U.S. government intentionally breached levees in New Orleans to submerge certain minority neighborhoods. These baseless claims increased the mistrust and fear that these minority communities already felt towards government agencies and first responders. Only well after rescue operations had ceased were researchers able to investigate these claims and debunk them, at which point the damage had already been done.

Technology failures have also been responsible for widespread panic. The Wireless Emergency System, commonly used for disasters, was falsely triggered in Hawaii in 2018, with claims of an inbound ballistic missile. This alert resulted in citizens panicking to find shelter and first responders initiating disaster management plans.

To navigate the digital landscape during disasters and avoid falling victim to misinformation, individuals should prioritize information from trusted official sources. Likewise, official sources should make it clear where citizens can find trusted information and provide channels for citizens to validate that the information they have received is legitimate.

Trusting Policies for Recovery

Recovery is a critical phase in the aftermath of a disaster, when affected communities strive to rebuild their lives, infrastructure, and social fabric. Trust in policies governing recovery efforts determines whether individuals and communities receive the necessary support, resources, and information to effectively rebuild and recover from devastation.

During the recovery phase, affected individuals worry if they will have the support needed to rebuild their lives. This support can take various forms, including financial assistance, housing access, and available food and clean water. The slow and inadequate government response in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina left many New Orleans residents stranded without essential resources, leaving many feeling abandoned and disillusioned. Many died of thirst, exposure, and violence in predominantly minority communities not prioritized by the government.

Insurance coverage is another crucial aspect of recovery. Individuals and businesses often rely on insurance to mitigate the financial burden of rebuilding. However, gaps in insurance coverage and complex claim processes can undermine trust in the system. For example, after the wildfires that ravaged California in recent years, some homeowners faced obstacles in receiving adequate insurance payouts for their losses. Long legal cases fought by corporations such as the utility company Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) caused further delays for homeowners awaiting payouts for recovery. These delays and disputes left individuals struggling to rebuild and raised questions about the effectiveness and fairness of disaster recovery insurance policies.

Access to adequate healthcare is vital throughout the recovery phase. Disasters result in increased healthcare needs due to physical injuries, mental health issues, and the spread of diseases in crowded shelters. For example, in the wake of Hurricane Maria in 2017, Puerto Rico faced a healthcare crisis as the island faced extended power blackouts. Limited access to medical facilities, essential supply shortages, and a lack of coordinated healthcare response further deepened trust deficits between affected populations and the government.

Information Dissemination During Disasters

Governments have a responsibility to disseminate accurate, timely, and relevant information to citizens during and after a disaster, including information about evacuation routes, available resources, health risks, and progress in recovery efforts.  Governments facing criticism for inadequate information dissemination have led to frustration and mistrust among affected populations.

In the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster following the earthquake and tsunami in 2011, the Japanese government was accused of withholding critical information about the extent of radiation exposure and potential risks to public health. This lack of transparency undermined public trust, fueled rumors and misinformation, and caused unnecessary panic among affected communities.

The issue of information-withholding raises the question of citizens’ rights to access data collected by disaster response agencies. While governments may have legitimate reasons for controlling certain sensitive information, the call for greater transparency and citizen involvement in decision-making processes is growing. The federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and similar state policies are too slow and cumbersome to surface the information that citizens need during disasters.

As an example, the state of California collects a compendium of remote sensing data during active fires. The state government uses this information to allocate resources and deploy firefighters but does not release the data publicly for fear that citizens will draw uninformed conclusions. However, the proliferation of commercial satellite imagery services has increasingly democratized remote sensing data, and many laypersons are developing proficiency around interpreting remote sensing imagery.

Providing citizens with access to the data collected by disaster response agencies can foster trust, promote accountability, and enable individuals and communities to make informed decisions regarding their safety and recovery. Balancing the need for information security with the principles of transparency and citizen empowerment is a complex challenge that requires careful consideration and the establishment of clear protocols and guidelines.


Trust is paramount in shaping the outcomes of disaster response efforts. From accurate forecasting and early warning systems to effective coordination and communication during and after a disaster, trust between citizens, governments, and technological systems is essential. Building and maintaining trust requires transparent and reliable information, proactive planning, and inclusive collaboration.

Technology plays a crucial role in disaster management, enabling efficient communication and information dissemination. Government agencies must leverage technology to make the entire disaster management cycle transparent and accessible to the public, while individuals rely on various technologies to navigate and respond to disasters. However, ensuring equal access to these technologies and addressing regional disparities is crucial. By prioritizing trust-building measures and strengthening the interplay between technology, policy, and society, communities can be better prepared, respond effectively, and recover from natural disasters with resilience and unity.