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Economy

Birmingham company uses technology to allow corporations to operate remotely

Brandon Moseley

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Alabama is now in its sixth week of the forced economic shutdown ordered to combat the spread of the novel strain of the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.

The COVID-19 global pandemic has forced companies to implement social distancing, telework, and keep operating despite bans on travel and of groups over ten. One Birmingham firm is helping businesses operating in this challenging online environment.

Help Lightning has a high-tech solution allowing technicians to remotely guide on-site equipment repairs and perform other mission-critical tasks for customers in manufacturing, health care and other industries. The company has seen demand for its services soar since the coronavirus crisis began.

“In the last month alone, the number of calls made using Help Lightning increased over 400 percent as existing and new customers ramped up to deliver expertise remotely,” Help Lightning CEO Gary York said.

Help Lightning’s solution uses mobile augmented reality technology.

Earlier this month, Atlanta-based Cox Communications, the nation’s largest private telecom company, announced a partnership with Help Lightning to launch its “On-site with Virtual Assist” service.

Help Lightning’s technology allows Cox technicians to handle service requests from outside a customer’s home, without the need to go inside to troubleshoot a repair. This protects both the customer and the technician.

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“One customer had a critical piece of equipment go down in Milan right when Italy started their lockdown,” Yor said. “Using Help Lightning, they were able to get it back up without sending someone – even faster than if they had dispatched a technician. They avoided exposure of their employee to the virus and resolved the problem.”

Greg Canfield is the Secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce.

Canfield said that Help Lightning is a prime example of an innovative Alabama technology firm providing real-world solutions to the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“Help Lightning and its cutting-edge technology are helping many businesses overcome difficult conditions in today’s challenging times, while demonstrating to the world that a high level of innovation is taking place in our state,” Secretary Canfield said.

Help Lightning actually got its start through the work of Dr. Bart Guthrie, a neurosurgeon at UAB Medical Center and prolific inventor. Dr. Guthrie wanted to share life-saving surgical techniques with doctors in other parts of the world. He knew that simple video wouldn’t do the trick given the complexity of the surgical procedures.

To properly guide the other surgeons Guthrie would need to be there “virtually,” with his hands and instruments in the field of view.

York said Help Lightning’s patented Virtual Interactive Presence technology was the outcome of Guthrie’s work. Guthrie is still at UAB and serves on the company’s board.

The technology developed by Dr. Guthrie has applications in other fields, as well as the brain surgery it was designed for. The company launched in 2016 and found a market in companies conducting field service and customer service activities.

“Anywhere that an organization had to send out a technician to repair a piece of equipment, Help Lightning could be used to virtually bring an expert on-site and guide a technician or customer through the repair,” York said.

Help Lightning serves Fortune 1000 companies with a presence in over 90 countries around the world.

York said the COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating adoption of its remote expertise platforms.

“I absolutely believe that business is being changed forever. Many of these changes were being adopted by more forward-thinking companies over the past four years,” he said. “This crisis has become the catalyst for adoption and use of remote expertise solutions. The pandemic has been an inflection point.”

The technology allows companies to shift their workers to provide remote service. Help Lightning is being used in hospitals to perform virtual pre-surgical patient visits, reducing the risk of spreading infection and the need for scarce personal protective equipment.

Economic developer Dr. Nicole Jones told the Alabama Political Reporter, “The technology provided by Help Lighting is an example of innovative solutions created by Alabamians that are especially useful amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Industries utilizing Help Lightning’s services are now able to assist in customer and patient care in a safe manner. The virtual assistance seems to be the next best alternative to in-person service (in a non-pandemic environment.”

“Help Lightning serves many major medical device companies that are ramping up now to support more testing and to deliver critical medical equipment,” York said. “A few of our customers have declared Help Lightning as an ‘Essential Business’ in their supply chain. We are glad to do our part to bend the curve on the impact of the virus and to blunt the impact of the economic downturn.”

The Birmingham company has 30 employees with most of them located in Birmingham.

“Birmingham is home for me,” York said. “We have received tremendous support from our community as we have raised funds, sought top talent, and grown to support companies all over the world. Innovation Depot is a treasure for our city. And our community always seems to come together to make Birmingham a better place to live.”

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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Economy

Alabama Gulf Coast beaches remain closed for now

Brandon Moseley

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Gov. Kay Ivey took a tour of the damage from Hurricane Sally on the gulf coast Friday September 18, 2020. (Governor's Office/Hal Yeager)

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announced that beaches will remain closed for now due to ongoing repair and cleanup efforts in the wake of Hurricane Sally.

“Working closely with Gulf Shores Mayor Robert Craft and Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon, as well as Commissioner Billy Joe Underwood, the governor has agreed to keep Baldwin County’s beaches closed until Friday, October 2nd,” the governor’s office said in a statement. “This will allow those communities additional time to get their beaches ready for public enjoyment in a safe, responsible manner.”

Mobile County beaches might open earlier than that.

“Likewise, the governor has been in touch with Mayor Jeff Collier, and she is prepared to amend the beach closure order for Mobile County when he signals that Dauphin Island is ready to reopen their beaches,” the governor’s office said in a statement. “At the present time, all Alabama beaches remain closed until further notice.”

Hurricane Sally came ashore near Gulf Shores on Sept. 16 as a category two hurricane with 105 mile per hour winds. Numerous homes, businesses and farms have been destroyed and many more have seen serious damage.

“As of Wednesday night, approx. 37,000 cubic yards of Hurricane Sally debris (equivalent to roughly 1,700 truck loads worth) has been picked up in Orange Beach since Sunday (4 days),” the city of Orange Beach announced. “Kudos to our debris contractor CrowderGulf.”

“I spent Sunday afternoon meeting with senior staff and I believe we will need some time to get our buildings safe for children to return,” said Baldwin County Schools Superintendent Eddie Taylor in a letter to parents. “We live in a very large county. Power may be on in your area and your school may not have any damage, but we cannot open schools unless all schools can open. Our pacing guides, state testing, meal and accountability requirements are based on the system, not individual schools.”

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“We have schools without power and for which we do not expect power until later this week,” Taylor said. “In this new age, we need internet and communications which are currently down so we cannot run any system tests. We have physical damage at our schools including some with standing water, collapsed ceilings and blown out windows. We have debris on our properties and debris blocking our transportation teams from picking up students. All of this must be resolved before we can successfully re-open.”

“If everything goes as planned, I expect we will welcome back students on Wednesday, September 30,” Taylor said. “Prior to returning students to school, we will hold two teacher work days to get our classrooms and our lessons plans back on track.”

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Economy

SNAP replacement benefits coming to three counties hit by Hurricane Sally

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Gov. Kay Ivey took a tour of the damage from Hurricane Sally on the gulf coast Friday September 18, 2020. (Governor's Office/Hal Yeager)

Thousands of SNAP recipients in Mobile, Baldwin and Escambia counties are set to receive automatic replacement benefits as a result of Hurricane Sally, the Alabama Department of Human Resources announced Thursday.

Recipients who received their benefits Sept. 1 through Sept. 16 will receive a replacement of 50 percent of their regular monthly benefit. Those who received supplemental pandemic maximum allotment payments will receive a replacement of 30 percent of those benefits.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service approved the replacement benefits today at the request of DHR. The benefits are intended to replace food purchased with SNAP that was lost to widespread power outages caused when Hurricane Sally made landfall on Sept. 16.

“Our priority is to remove the very real threat of hunger for the many Alabamians who are struggling from the devastation of Hurricane Sally,” said Alabama DHR Commissioner Nancy Buckner. “The first step toward that goal is to replace the food that so many Alabamians lost to the storm. We are actively working to obtain additional resources to provide much-needed relief for the region as it recovers.”

Hurricane Sally caused over 265,000 households to lose power for at least four hours in Mobile, Baldwin and Escambia counties, where approximately 54,000 households will receive SNAP benefits totaling an estimated $8.5 million.

Those recipients should expect to see the replacement benefits automatically loaded onto their EBT cards next week.

The Food Assistance Division of DHR administers the SNAP program in Alabama.

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More information about the program can be found at dhr.alabama.gov/food-assistance.

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Economy

Unemployment assistance available to workers in Baldwin, Escambia and Mobile Counties

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Gov. Kay Ivey took a tour of the damage from Hurricane Sally on the gulf coast Friday September 18, 2020. (Governor's Office/Hal Yeager)

Alabama Department of Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington announced Thursday that workers who became unemployed as a direct result of Hurricane Sally in Baldwin, Escambia and Mobile Counties may qualify for unemployment assistance.

People who live in or worked in these counties and became unemployed due to Hurricane Sally during the period of Sept. 14, 2020, may be eligible for assistance under the Disaster Unemployment Assistance program, which was triggered when President Donald Trump designated the area as a disaster area on Sept. 20, 2020.

“Generally, those who are eligible for state unemployment benefits are not eligible for DUA, but a claimant may qualify if state unemployment compensation benefits are exhausted,” said Washington. “If you believe you are entitled to these benefits, I urge you to file a claim to see if you are eligible.”

People who may be eligible for Disaster Unemployment Assistance include the following:

  • Individuals who no longer have a job, are unable to reach the place of employment, or were scheduled to start work in the major disaster area and the job no longer exists
  • Those who became the breadwinner or major support of the family because the head of household died, or those who cannot work because of an injury incurred during the major disaster

All the previously described circumstances must be as a direct result of the hurricane. Self-employed individuals must provide a copy of their 2019 tax return, business license or Form 1099 within 21 days after applying for DUA benefits.

Claims can be filed through ADOL’s website at labor.alabama.gov or by calling 1-866-234-5382.

The deadline to file a DUA claim is Oct. 28, 2020, for Baldwin, Escambia and Mobile Counties.

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Alabama Farmer’s Federation starts a relief fund for farmers impacted by Sally

Brandon Moseley

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A satellite image of Hurricane Sally. (VIA NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE)

The Alabama Farmers Federation said Monday that it has established a relief fund to help farmers from across the state whose farms were damaged by Hurricane Sally.

“When disaster strikes, I am always impressed by the people of Alabama and their giving spirits,” said Alabama Farmers Federation President Jimmy Parnell. “As we started receiving photos of damaged crops, barns and equipment, we also started getting questions from people about what they could do to help our farmers, and that’s why we’ve established this fund.”

All the donations to the relief fund are tax-deductible and may be made online or by check payable to Alabama Farmers Agriculture Foundation at P.O. Box 11000, Montgomery, AL 36191. Please include “hurricane relief fund” in the check memo line.

“Most of our farmers had as good a crop as we’ve ever seen, and it was so close to harvest for cotton, soybeans, peanuts and pecans,” Parnell said. “It’s devastating to lose a crop that had so much promise. Our farmers are great people who are assisting each other with cleaning up the damage, and we’re so grateful to everyone across the state who is helping in some way, like donating to the relief fund.”

Hurricane Sally made landfall near Gulf Shores as a category two storm Sept. 16 with maximum sustained winds of 105 mph. Official reports from the National Weather Service show more than 20 inches of rain in Baldwin County.

The combination of heavy rains and high winds damaged crops, structures and equipment from Mobile and Baldwin Counties in the southwest through Russell County in the east.

It has been a difficult few years for farmers.

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While the general economy had been doing well prior to the coronavirus global pandemic, the farmers were caught in the middle of an international trade dispute over tariffs and fair competition.

Chinese retaliation against Americans farm products depressed commodity markets from 2018 through early this year.

When it appeared that the U.S. and China had come to a trade accord in January, the coronavirus hit along with massive disruptions in the supply chain.

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Farm bankruptcies were already up pre-COVID-19. The loss of the 2020 crop could push some already struggling agribusinesses over the brink.

The Alabama Farmers Federation is Alabama’s largest and most influential farmers’ organization.

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