Technology aided disaster response

The federal government moved fast to prepare for Hurricane Irene in late August and was even able to respond to a rare East Coast earthquake in the thick of it. Technology proved to be a great help, but the events also revealed some limitations.

The aftermath of Irene provoked an argument of sorts between the New York Times and the Atlantic over the value of cell phones vs. landlines. New York Times reporters Joshua Brustein and Jenna Wortham fired the first volley — probably without realizing they were doing so — by praising the performance of cell phone networks during Irene.

“The rise of mobile devices turns the conventional wisdom about landline telephones on its head,” they wrote. “For decades, the landline phone was trusted to be more reliable than the electricity grid because the phone network’s dedicated power supply often survived blackouts."

However, they continued, “the evolution of the landline — which first saw cordless phones (that do not work in blackouts) and Internet-based telephony (which requires a battery backup in case of blackouts) — has led to a decrease in its reliability. That hole has been filled, to some degree, by wireless voice and data networks. “

The Atlantic's Edward Tenner begged to differ, saying the New York Times writers were half right in their defense of cell phone reliability.

“Some landline service was knocked out by Irene, probably as a result of damage to vulnerable aboveground links, like flooded switching stations,” he wrote. “And my own cell service continued even after my Internet-based phone (and cable and, of course, Web) connection failed. What the [New York Times] article doesn't say, though, is that we have a long way to go in making the cell network nearly as reliable as landline.”

In USA Today, Marisol Bello charted the use of Facebook and Twitter to track the hurricane's impact. She reported that on Aug. 27, the day the storm struck the East Coast, seven of Twitter’s top 10 trending topics were hurricane-related, with 3,000 posts coming in per minute. Some of the posts were warnings and expressions of sympathy, while others argued that the storm was being overhyped.

In general, the federal response was praised, but it’s not at all certain that the same level of action will be available for a similar event should it happen a few years from now because the agencies most responsible for storm tracking and emergency response are in Congress’ budget-cutting crosshairs.

Some of the cuts have already begun. The spending compromise this year cut the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s budget for satellites significantly. NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco warned back in May that in a few years, NOAA won’t be able to provide the “severe storm warnings and long-term weather forecasts that people have come to expect today,” National Public Radio reports.

Lubchenco’s words were mild, especially when compared to Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy, who said during a CNN interview that Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) was an idiot for suggesting that the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be disbanded, with private insurers taking over the role of disaster relief.

As Mark Pazniokas retells it in an article in the Connecticut Mirror, CNN interviewer Christine Romans tried to shrug off Malloy’s words as the product of fatigue and frustration — Irene hit New England hard and the heavy rains led to extensive flooding — but Malloy deflected her effort by saying, “I’m a defender of FEMA.”

Malloy credited preplanning at all levels of government for saving lives during the storm and praised the cooperation among federal and state agencies. Federal Computer Week highlighted a collaborative effort under which the Defense Department supported FEMA with bases, personnel, ships, and ground and air transport.

Reporter Henry Kenyon wrote that several military bases were designated as FEMA incident support bases, with supplies and equipment positioned ahead of the storm.

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.

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