Voices of Harvey: “Can We Develop a Disaster Platform For The World?”

Houston—During Hurricane Harvey, ChaiOne founder and CEO Gaurav Khandelwal and his wife, Seema, hosted volunteer nurses who had come in from out of town to help provide medical care to storm victims.

“For over three nights they keep going to NRG Park,” the Houston Texans stadium that served as a shelter after Harvey hit, he says. “They kept getting turned back; they had too many nurses there.”

At the same time, he says, he was hearing from some former ChaiOne employees and their families just north of Houston, in Conroe, TX, who had medical supplies but couldn’t get to shelters because of flooding. “They were using text messages, Facebook, and WhatsApp—all these different technologies—to manage this kind of chaos. There were a lot of people in the middle and that seemed to create a lot of waste.”

So Khandelwal decided he would tackle the problem using tools he and his employees knew best and create an app called Disaster Connect.

“We got together that Saturday [of the storm] and started talking about this idea—there are leads and needs. We can create a lead of something you can provide or you can ask for a need.

“In the last three weeks, we put in about 500 hours frantically building this app. First it was for Harvey, but right after that with Irma and the others, it seemed like disaster season. We realized this could be global; this, these disasters, are happening everywhere. There were floods in India. So we created Disaster Connect, available on both ioS and Android.”

“The app is already localized in Spanish; we’ve done the Spanish translations,” he says. “Over time, the plan is to add other languages and take it global.

“By the end of [developing the app], we were pretty exhausted. We would do stand up calls at 9:30 pm, staying up until 1 am, and going back to our day jobs. This has to do with a higher purpose; we have this privilege of being able to build things that can impact people’s lives in a meaningful way at scale. Why not leverage that privilege? Other people went out and helped people haul trash and clean their homes. This is something we are blessed with being able to do. Why not leverage that skill?

“Whenever there’s a disaster, there’s a huge groundswell of support. But after a few months, those efforts more or less died. [The startup collective] Entrepreneurs for Houston can be very useful, can provide a way to sustain these efforts. Even for us, if we don’t continue to support this initiative from me as a leader of a company, this is going to die because we’re going to focus on billable work and we’ll just leave this app where it is. And over time, it’ll die. If [Entrepreneurs for Houston] can provide the funding, we’re going to select a couple of projects to support and maybe those things could become commercial enterprises, social startups.

“Can we develop a disaster platform for the world? Can Houston take what’s going to keep happening here—we’re always going to have hurricanes here—and leverage that to be something positive?”

Angela Shah is the editor of Xconomy Texas. She can be reached at ashah@xconomy.com or (214) 793-5763. Follow @angelashah

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