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Va. couple creates map-making website to help locate stranded victims in Hurricane Harvey

An Alexandria couple has created a map-making website to help locate stranded victims in Houston due to Hurricane Harvey, Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017 (Rich Reeve, ABC7) 

"Need immediate help, a wheelchair-bound girl with cerebral palsy needs rescue."

"Dad, fragile, cancer alone, in the house."

"Please send a rescue team, we have tried every phone in your broadcast, and no one answers."

It was desperate tweets like these, that prompted a young high-tech couple from the DMV to take action.

"The sheer number of requests was overwhelming," says Michelle Hansen. “I was crying as I was compiling that list.”

Hansen, a product manager, and her husband Mathias, a software engineer, kept watch on Twitter as Houston residents tweeted out urgent messages and their home addresses.

Why not, the Hansens thought, create a website with a digital map showing where those people are stranded by the flooding?

"People were unable to get through to 911, because the phone lines are jammed, so many people calling," Hansen says.

Adding to the problem, about 7,800 cell towers in the area are either damaged or destroyed by Tropical Storm Harvey.

Some 1,300 of those Twitter distress calls came with addresses attached.

The Hansons created ‘Geocodio,' a service which converts addresses into longitude and latitude coordinates.

The program puts all the information into one place and creates a map.

The program can also locate key words like ‘street’, ‘Houston’, or ‘Zip Code’ to help find addresses.

Then that information can be shared with the Red Cross and first responders.

“We can then get the full location where someone is tweeting from,” Hansen says. “Put that on a map so that first responders like the Cajun Navy and others can see very clearly where people need to be rescued.”

The map also can show rescue crews the location of large numbers of stranded people.

“Everything is clustered into points,” Mathias Hansen explains. “So you can actually see what areas are most affected. What areas where people are mostly asking for help.”

The Hansens knew they were likely aiding hundreds of people.

What they didn’t know, at least initially, is that they were helping a friend in the District whose grandmother hadn’t been heard from.

"The phone lines were down, 911 wasn't picking up,” Jonathan Ewing says. “My family in Texas was anxious.”

Ewing’s grandmother Marina, is in her 80s, and family members were pretty sure her nursing home had flooded.

An uncle who drove through the flooded Houston streets found her safe--- but for now, both are marooned inside the building.

Still for Ewing, ‘Geocodio’ was a confidence-booster, after a ravaging storm.

“He told me when he saw the address show up on the map, it gave him hope, that somebody could go and rescue her,” Michelle Hansen says.

Hundreds of miles from the destruction of Harvey, the Hansens and Ewing believe the program is making a difference.

“When you’re able to put everything into an emotionless situation like a map, I imagine it has to be a huge benefit to first responders in the area,” Ewing adds.

A high-tech mapping program that’s saving time, and perhaps lives.

“We're working with other groups now to track down the status of those requests and see if people are getting rescued,” Michelle Hansen says. “It's the first time I started crying as I was creating something, it was just so overwhelming to see the amount of need."

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