Many East Coast residents are still reeling from Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath. The devastation in the region was extreme — it took lives, destroyed property, rendered people homeless and plunged millions into darkness this week. (New York City, one of the hardest hit areas, managed to bring power back to all of Manhattan, but it may not be able to restore full power to all of its residents until November 11.)
As unbelievable as it was, it could’ve been far worse if not for some proactive thinking: Electric companies pre-emptively shut down grids to mitigate potential damage, emergency responders and relief organizations strategized and assumed key locations, and political leaders took to the news media, radio, social media and other Internet services to broadcast information and enact curfews. We know what happened next — floods, blackouts, property damage and, most tragically, injuries and deaths. (As of this writing, it was reported that the storm claimed 106 lives in the U.S. so far.)
Hopefully the count will remain steady as workers move forward in this recovery period. In the mean time hurricane stories continue to emerge. It’s hard not to facepalm over a few things (like the crazy New Yorker who jetski’ed in the East River as the storm worsened), stare agape at monstrous — and eerily fitting — circumstances (such as flood waters unearthing coffins in Crisfield, MD, on the eve of Halloween) or weep empathetically at the profound tragedies some folks have suffered (like the Staten Island mother whose young sons were ripped out of her arms by the swirling flood waters).
In times like these, it’s natural to rally together and talk about things like courage, generosity and the enduring spirit of mankind. Some may choose to do so by “getting in touch,” sitting it in a circle holding hands and singing Kumbayah. No judgment here, if that’s your thing, but this is a tech site, and we have a different way of doing things. We’re interested in questions like, “How did technology serve or fail people in this crisis?” “What did they do in the face of that?” And, “What, if anything, does that say about us, as human beings?”
It’s a look at tech, yes, but surprisingly it’s also a look at the nature of people, and what they do when they’re suddenly thrust into extraordinary circumstances with — and without — their technology.
Things Technology CAN Do During a Disaster
Allow Us to Give And Receive Support
Naturally Twitter and Facebook were swamped with updates from survivors and messages offering support and help. That’s partly due to the fact that many people — even some suffering power outages — still had a data connection. In fact, quite a few reported that cellular networks were their only means of communication after the lights went out. Apparently, with 25 percent of the cell towers in Sandy’s path taken out by the storm, three-quarters were still operational. Landlines fared even better — and may become the primary communications tool, if the cell carriers’ back-up generators run out of fuel before their local power grid gets restored.
Bring Neighbors Together
This one is among my all-time favorites: Cell phones became a lifeline of online connectivity to get updates, send messages to loved ones or other activities. The only problem is, for people in blacked out neighborhoods, battery charge-ups quickly became a scarce commodity. It was in this context that the photo above was taken. Snapped in Hoboken, NJ, which was absolutely pummeled by Sandy, the image shows what happened when one resident discovered that electricity was miraculously running in his home. Sure, they’re just surge protectors and wires hanging off a gate, but what we’re really looking at is how one act of kindness can make an impact on an entire neighborhood. It’s a great reminder that, even in the worst of times, we can always find ways to help each other out.
Turn Everyday People Into Heroes
Emily Rahimi may look like the girl next door, but behind that pleasant countenance beats the heart of a hero. Rahimi, the FDNY’s social media manager, single-handedly manned the department’s Twitter account (via @FDNY) for 24 straight hours, acting as a one-woman emergency social communications team. If you’re thinking, “What’s the big deal about sending some Tweets?”, let me fill you in: This was the worst hurricane the region has ever seen, and — working from Monday straight into Tuesday morning — she feverishly pushed out critical advisories for the city, broadcasted updates from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, responded to and relayed distress messages from people who couldn’t get through to 911 emergency services, and kept a cool head through it all, to offer support just when these disaster victims needed it the most. There’s no telling how many countless New Yorkers she helped or even saved, and there’s no doubt that the city owes this epic Twitter master a debt of gratitude.
Design a Hot-Button Cover That Goes Viral
A particular Tweet from Josh Tyrangiel, editor of Bloomberg BusinessWeek, got a lot of attention recently — in no small part due to an intriguing headline, article and cover image. If you missed it, it’s this one:
Bloomberg isn’t the only one broaching the topic. The New York Times published two pieces, one titled, “Are Humans to Blame? Science Is Out” and the other, an op-ed, “Will Climate Get Some Respect Now?“, while Foreign Policy ran “We Are All Venetians Now,” about the matter of our rising oceans. Certainly, the ferocity and destruction of Hurricane Sandy is impossible to ignore — not that other regions haven’t had their share of catastrophic weather events (mad respect, Katrina survivors) — but this recent event has galvanized the world’s attention anew to the topic of climate change. Regardless of where you stand on the issue, one thing’s for sure: Climate change has just been pushed into the spotlight again.
Things Technology CAN’T Do During a Disaster
Control the Weather
In what has to be the most delusional piece of news surrounding this whole mess, a pro-Syrian government group actually issued a statement on Facebook claiming that the “heroic Iranian regime” was responsible for Hurricane Sandy. CNN translated the Facebook posting by News Network of the Syrian Armed Forces thusly: “Sources confirmed to us that Hurricane Sandy that is slamming the U.S. was set off by highly advanced technologies developed by the heroic Iranian regime that supports the resistance, with coordination of our resistive Syrian regime.” Apparently it alludes to some sort of super secret tech that was unleashed to serve as punishment for those who attack and destabilize Syria.
Replace Human Beings
The key mantra of data specialists is “redundancy, redundancy, redundancy.” That’s why the pros have automatic system redundancies in place to protect critical data in the event of a catastrophic event. But none of that does any good if there’s nothing to power the whole process, as Peer 1 Hosting’s 17th floor data center found out after Con Ed killed Lower Manhattan’s electricity and the flood breached the building. Says Computerworld, the company’s “rooftop generator couldn’t access the 20,000-gallon fuel tank in the flooded basement. Its pumping system was disabled by storm waters…” Yikes. The data loss would’ve been severe, if not for the gumption and hard work of a team of people who passed buckets of fuel, one by one, up the stairs to the generator. The workers rolled up their sleeves and, positioned on each landing, ran the buckets up the steps to the workers at the next landing — and so on — in order to keep the facility running. It’s one thing to bail out your own basement, but it’s quite another to show this level of professional dedication. No corporate retreat could ever buy that kind of teamwork.
Save Patients During An Outage
Speaking of teamwork…. Some hospitals, under siege from the rising waters and power outages, faced an extra layer of nerve-shattering pressure when patient care became compromised during the storm. At New York University’s Tisch Hospital/Langone Medical Center, fear turned to horror as back-up generators that were sustaining life-supporting medical devices started to fail. But hospital personnel and rescue workers rallied, manually carrying patients down darkened hallways and flights of stairs — sometimes making a dozen or more trips — to evacuate them to Mount Sinai Hospital, the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, St. Luke’s Hospital, New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center or Long Island Jewish Hospital. And after 15 grueling hours, Dr. Bernard Birnbaum, the senior VP at Tisch Hospital, addressed the staff on Tuesday morning. He was clearly moved and inspired by the massive effort of the staffers, day workers and rescue personnel: “Everyone here is a hero. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
These are just a few of the stories that have emerged, and there are many, many more that have and will come pouring out as the flood waters recede and the damage is surveyed. The learning lesson is clear nonetheless: Technology can be a powerful tool, but it also has its boundaries. What’s unlimited, however, is the human will — in all its insane, strong, generous or heroic glory.