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This startup wants to help you prepare for America’s next disaster

October 25, 2020, 2:00 PM UTC

There are few experiences more harrowing than an earthquake. Ask Dan Kessler. He obsesses about them.

Kessler is the chief executive of Harbor, a startup that aims to help Americans prepare—at least semi-calmly—for the next disaster, from how to pack a “go bag,” to how much water you should stockpile.

To be sure, there will be another disaster. That might not be good for your nerves, but makes for ideal timing for a disaster prep app. America is grappling with a pandemic, a financial crisis, a potentially contested presidential election, another historic hurricane season, and superpowered wildfires on the West Coast.

Harbor tackles two out of these—natural disasters and COVID-19—plus the usual ailments of modern life: car crashes and house fires. (Next on Kessler’s wish list? A surprisingly common scourge: hail.)

If that seems dark, Kessler, a former executive at meditation app Headspace, says he frames disaster preparedness as a “simple, healthy habit,” much like brushing your teeth. While he admits he doesn’t have a background in emergency management—he was brought on to run the app in January—he says risk aversion is “in his bones.”

“I grew up in a household where we always had several months of toilet paper,” he says. He also points out that he has lived through several of America’s national calamities. Living in Los Angeles, he has been evacuated for wildfires “seemingly every year” and was in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.

“I am not unique,” he says grimly. 

Dan Kessler, CEO of Harbor, says Americans will face more natural disasters in the years to come. (Courtesy of Harbor)

“Just where the world is headed”

When deciding which life-muddling events to include, Kessler says the company turned to what was statistically most likely. Outside of house fires, car crashes, and a pandemic—which was a late addition, just before the October launch—the emphasis at Harbor is on natural disasters. There’s certainly room to grow, he acknowledges.

“It is a big request from our members: school shootings, terrorist attacks…There’s militias now and civil unrest,” he says. “It’s definitely something people are thinking about.”

But he says the reality of hurricanes and destructive fires is that “you can count on a natural disaster to happen” and that the risk will be increasing as the country grapples with the impacts of climate change. 

Climate scientists and the world’s largest insurance companies both acknowledge the risks from natural disasters are increasing. Munich Re registered 820 natural disasters causing insured losses in 2019, three times the amount from 30 years ago; in 2017 and 2018, another major insurer, Swiss Re, handed over $219 billion globally in checks.  

“I don’t mean to fearmonger, but 2021 is going to be bad, 2022 is going to be bad. There’s going to be an increasing number of these events,” Kessler says. “That’s just where the world is headed.”

Hurricanes in the South, wildfires in the West

The emergency preparedness plan is not a new idea: It’s the standard, recommended advice of every government agency or service. In fact, FEMA runs an app and a website complete with tips on how to prepare for everything from explosions to extreme heat. (FEMA provides content and advisory services to Harbor.)

The app, which raised $5 million in seed funding in August, mostly just consolidates public and government advice, compiled using a host of national security and climate change advisers. But it takes a “gamify” approach, what Kessler calls “Duolingo for home safety,” with cute graphics and a tracker system to show how “prepped” you are. Its website also sells tools for go-bags and water filtration. The app will be funded on a “freemium” model, with basic free accounts, while users can also upgrade their subscription for more services.

The app is based on your household’s zip code. Whether you live in Galveston, Texas, or Los Angeles, the app will suggest a different list of recommended natural disasters you will be advised to prepare for, based on that region’s government-assessed risks. (You can also add your own extras, so if you live in Illinois you can, in fact, prepare for a remote event like a tsunami.) 

Once a disaster does arrive, the app walks you through the basics of how to manage the crisis. (The advice can seem obvious to some, but no less vital—put on your shoes; keep an eye out for dangling electrical wires.) Households can all share an account, and it works offline, for those disasters that may cut cell service. 

There’s a range of things the app doesn’t yet do, including an early warning system for disasters, and 911 calling inside the app. Both features, he says, are far more difficult to implement than they appear. For one, warning systems can sometimes conflict with each other, Kessler notes. Another potential area of expansion is, naturally, quotes for disaster insurance—a growing business

“What’s going to happen next?”

For inspiration, Kessler admits that there are some cultures that are particularly good at prepping for disaster. He cites the Japanese systems around preparing for tsunamis, and another group closer to home: American Mormons.

“You could pull aside any Mormon family and they’ll be like, ‘Yeah, of course, I’ve got like six months of canned food down there,’” he says, with a laugh. “It’s really quite inspiring.” 

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints says it emphasizes “self-reliance” among its members, including preparing for illness, disaster, or other emergencies, and also runs home storage centers across North America.) 

But if the effort to put a pragmatic, design-centric spin on the rising toll of climate change may seem strained, the app is part of a cohort of companies designed to address the unavoidable, but often taboo, sides of life. Those include apps for first aid and preparedness and even death: The web-based service Cake, for example, helps people plan for the end of their lives, from informing loved ones where to find critical documents, to instructing them on the preferred music at their funerals.

The pandemic has given Harbor a boost, the company says: In April, registrations were up 400%.  

The pandemic has also opened people up to dealing pragmatically with disasters, Kessler argues. Simply put, that’s because Americans are already dealing with them, one way or another. 

“People are not saying it could happen,” he says. “They’re saying, ‘What’s going to happen next?’” 

This article has been corrected to reflect that the company received $5 million in seed funding.