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Storms put focus on technology – and its limitations

When high-tech falls short, the old stuff can still carry us through

Almost nowhere on the East Coast was safe from the storms that ravaged it this week, and the Washington, D.C., area was no exception. Although spared from the massive cyclone that slammed through Tuscaloosa, Ala., and the tornadoes that struck elsewhere throughout the South, the D.C. area did have a few tornadoes touch down, and more bad weather than Zeus could generate with one of his thunderbolts.

My experience during the storms was comparatively minor. Other than a little water in the basement, there was not much damage. But it did get me using some very high-tech, and some very low-tech, devices to keep abreast of the dangerous situation.

And that got me thinking about my age-old argument that the way to go in technology planning is to use the lowest common denominator that gets the job done. Or at least have as part of your plan, as a fallback, if nothing else. Sometimes complexity is your worst enemy, because there is just so much more that can go wrong.

Case in point, when my wife saw on the news that the squall line was heading our way, I jumped onto my computer and went to Weather.com. There I was treated to a radar image (overlaid on a satellite or street map) where I could see the storm approaching.

The red glare of its midsection seemed to gaze at me with malicious intent. I could even track it back for the past few hours, watching it slowly creep in my direction. One really innovative thing about Weather.com is that it now has predictive radar. So you no long have to track a storm in the past. You can ask the application where the storm will be up to six hours in the future, and get a reasonably good idea.

When the front edge of the storm hit, the power went out. But I was ready for that. Backup power supplies kicked in and kept juice flowing to my router, switch, monitor and computer. I had made the mistake before of not putting the router on a backup power supply, resulting in the computer staying up, but without an Internet connection. But I was all set this time around.

Then things took a turn. When things got really bad, we were warned to get to a safe room. Our safe room happens to be our basement laundry room, and it’s very low-tech, down there with the spiders. As my wife and I, and our very annoyed cat who had to be awakened from one of her many naps, huddled on the concrete floor, illuminated by the harsh florescent glow of a camping lamp, I felt very disconnected.

But my wife pulled out the weather radio we keep inside the emergency supplies tub. With a brilliant crackle of static, it spurred to life, telling us exactly what was going on outside. Only after the radio gave us the all-clear about 15 minutes later did we emerge back into the world.

So the most valuable technology to us in that situation was probably the radio, using a technology that's more than 100 years old. But the radio is portable, works in adverse conditions, can be stored in a bin along with Band-Aids and Spam for six months at a time, and gives you information when you need it. It might not give you as much information as modern technology, or present it in as pleasing a way, but when your life or the lives of others are at risk, sometimes the simplest solution is best.

Do you have any storm stories to share? And how and what type of technology, if any, did you use to help make it safely through to the hopefully beautiful weekend ahead?

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

Reader Comments

Sat, Apr 30, 2011 Ben Maine

This article illustrates in a small way the potential effects of a (short) loss of routine connectivity. With the proliferation of portable/mobile technology, people have come to rely on it to an extent never before realized. Eventually there will be a situation in an urban area that where a massive outage will occur to these information services leaving people who either have never had to or have forgotten how to get by without these services disconnected. The outage could be either power related (long term outage lasting more than 8 hours, or depending on the preparations of the providers, maybe as long as a few days) or connectivity related (loss or destruction of backbone facilities). The causes of these problems may be related to any of the following: Weather, Accident, Atmospheric phenomena (solar flares, electromagnetic anomaly, etc), malfunction (for example Galaxy IV satellite failure in 1998), Power Grid malfunction (for example the Northeast Blackout of 2003) or Terrorism. History demonstrates that sometimes backup systems either don't work, are not tested frequently and/or maintained properly, or in some cases are simply not provided at all. I have a real concern that as we move towards more complex and interconnected information and communications systems that more failures will occur due to a failure of one or more key components. Though the damage path is impressive, a tornado is fairly localized, and usually resources are intact within a relatively short distance from the damage area. In a devastating event like the Japanese Earthquake/Tsunami or a Hurricane Andrew or Katrina where the vast majority of anything is wiped out for miles around some people will be at a loss and have no idea what to do or where to go for information. With wired phones in every house going by the wayside with more and more homes opting for cell phones, in a major event more users than ever will be filling any available cell sites to capacity. Even the old standbys, like commercial radio, are not as reliable as they once were due to the extreme amount of automation and remote control, making staffing of many local stations nonexistent, and therefore local news and information limited or nonexistent. One resource that has plenty of experience in disaster situations and has options for capabilities both with and without other infrastructure is Amateur (Ham) Radio, but with limitations being placed on Amateurs in housing developments their options for raising antennas in some places are limited, thus limiting their capabilities. As illustrated by the author, sometimes the simplest solutions are the best, and fallback to some kind of communications or information solution that is simple and does not rely on backbones or providers should be, at minimum, part of any family (and government agency) plan. These are all certainly things for everyone to keep in mind.

Fri, Apr 29, 2011 Shawn Richmond, VA

Real time updates on Twitter for my locale were just awesome on my smartphone (along with radar).

Fri, Apr 29, 2011

Where was your smart phone?

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