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Irene: High-Tech Hurricane or Old Media Triumph?

By on August 28, 20112 Comments

As Hurricane Irene started to bear down on the New York metropolitan area, like many others, I started to think about preparing for a variety of eventualities including storm damage and power failure.

The View from the Eighth Floor

Though the storm packed a good punch, with strong winds and heavy rain, it never reached the potential that meteorologists had forecast.  Indeed, wind speeds reached 80 mph (128 km/h) at times but, in general, sustained winds were(according to news reports) at most in the 60 mph (96 km/h) range and generally far lower.

Some storm-related preparatory tasks were relatively easy, such as removing all of the outdoor furniture from my terrace (and hoped that neighbors, especially those living on higher floors, had done the same).  After reading that the FBI told its employees to make sure to place papers and files inside desk drawers so that they wouldn’t fly out if office windows broke, I moved all papers (what happened to the Paperless Society?) away to safety.  I thought about taping the windows but, apparently, prevailing wisdom has shifted away from this so I decided that the shades and blinds would have to protect against possible broken glass.

Experts on television and radio were telling apartment dwellers to stay away from windows if they lived on the 10th floor or higher since the higher you go, the stronger the wind gusts get.  One of my criteria for living on the eighth floor of my high-rise condo was that the fire department ladders didn’t go much higher. Now I had another reason.

Then there was water.  In the event of a power failure, the pumps that supply water in taller buildings won’t work.  I filled five larger pots just to be safe.  I already had plenty of bottled water to drink so that part was covered.

Now came the hard part, namely news and information.  If the power went out, my main Internet connection (Verizon FiOS) would also go down (although the FiOS connection does have battery backup, it is intended to keep voice services up and running for up to eight hours, but not data).  I made the switch to Internet radio years ago and migrated my last battery-operated radio (a shower radio) to Wi-Fi last year.  There’s got to be a battery operated radio here somewhere…

It turns out I actually had two.  One is a battery-operated Radio Shack weather radio, the other a small battery-operated clock radio.  Of course the clock-radio hadn’t been touched in years, the batteries had been left in way too long and had corroded but, after a quick cleaning, it worked reasonably well with new batteries.

Now onto ensuring a modicum of Internet connectivity.   My new HTC Sensation phone has a built-in 4G hotspot and I also have a Clear 4G hotspot.  I charged both and also made sure any other mobile phones I had lying around well charged as well.  My Apple iPad was already fully charged and I would need its ten-hour battery life if the power went out (I made sure that the most recent issues of the Economist and other newspapers and magazines had been downloaded, to minimize the need for Internet connectivity.  Finally, I also charged my Nikon D90 DSLR in case a photo opportunity presented itself (it didn’t but one never knows).

It turns out that television news about hurricanes is highly addicting when you are in the path of the storm.  Based on the dearth of my friends’ Facebook posts, I would say that most of them were watching the news as well.  Unlike what I heard right after the earthquake (which shook Washington and New York and was centered in Virginia) where there were reports that there had been 5,000 Twitter posts per second, I heard no such stats being bandied about during Irene.  In fact, the news media seemed downright serious about the coverage and reportage was in many respects at its best, demonstrating the power and often-overlooked value of old media.

Indeed, during severe storms and power failures, when cell sites and towers go down and wireless data becomes unreliable, AM radio, which first came into existence in 1906, and broadcast television, which came into widespread use in the 1940s, are still the media to which almost everyone turns

More than 1.3 million people are without power in the tri-state area as I write this.  At one point, the Long Island Power Authority was reporting that 25% of its customers were impacted by a blackout.  As I write this, the skies are brightening although cloudy with occasional sprinkles. The flood warnings continue for the tri-state area as rivers and lakes continue to rise and it will take days to restore power to millions of people along the eastern seaboard so we are not quite out of the woods yet, but the forecast for radio and television news is for clear skies.


  • Bob Frankston says:

    This is also a reminder of the hazards of the pipe-based (AKA telecommunications) implementation we have for connectivity (http://rmf.vc/NotSuper). Broadcast media do have an advantage in not being as restricted though they too have single-point failures, as on 9/11, if you lose the single antenna site. Fortunately, in aggregate, there are generally multiple sources (channel, stations).

    This is why it is so important to understand and take advantage of the fact that bits decouple the relationships (and communication) from the restrictions of paths. We also need to embrace open-loop communication as part of the mix (as in the broadcast example) to maximize the odds of getting messages through.

    Rather than depending upon the accidental properties of legacy media and mediums we need an explicit understanding so we can move forward.

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