Hurricane Disaster Highlights Techs Limitations

 
 
By Eric Lundquist  |  Posted 2005-09-05
 
 
 

Last week, technology news took a far back seat to the forces of nature. As Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Southern United States, the tech industry, along with the rest of the country, could only stare in awe and trepidation at the forces stirred up over the ocean and possibly spurred on by global warming.

The use of technology has been a great aid in forecasting the creation, speed, intensity and direction of a hurricane. I can still remember my parents relating the story of the Great Hurricane of 1938, which ripped across the Northeast without warning, with wind gusts that measured 186 mph at the Blue Hills Observatory outside Boston. Now, that forecasting ability provides a chance to get out of harms way.

During and following Hurricane Katrina, technology—communications technology, in particular—provided almost too much information. The breadth of images—banks of workers at hurricane centers, state disaster command posts and on-air reporters being blown horizontal by the storms force—illustrated the difficulty of trying to create a comprehensive picture of such a disaster.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, T-Mobile offered free Wi-Fi services to the general public of the affected tri-state area. Click here to read more.

The command post activity was reminiscent of the uncertainty of battle and "fog of war" metaphor often (wrongly) attributed to 19th-century military thinker Carl von Clausewitz. During Hurricane Katrina, information poured in from many sources—such as buoys that measured wave heights to blogs to photos from cell phones—but all that activity didnt translate into a real-time, big-picture view of the situation.

Now, as the cleanup continues and rebuilding begins, the aspects of technology that are relevant to (and subservient to) the larger human disaster are worthy of discussion.

Although the ability to predict hurricanes is still largely based on a mix of data and guesswork, the ability to track and predict the path a storm will take has shown tremendous improvement. Whether from television, the Web or your cell phone, you know a great deal more about what is coming your way than did your parents or grandparents.

However, while the ability to track a storm on television has improved greatly, the ability to know what is happening to the industrial and business infrastructure during such a storm is still lacking. While watching and listening to the news reports during the height of Katrinas fury, I was struck by how little was known about the storms toll on the oil and gas drilling platforms, refineries and shipping operations. Because of the sensible and necessary evacuation of those facilities, the engineers and managers I saw in interviews had very little knowledge of what was happening at their sites.

The situation during a hurricane reflects on a much grander scale the status of many business operations where issues such as remote system monitoring and the status reports of the electrical and water infrastructures remain low-priority budget items that never seem to survive past the yearly funding cycle.

Even after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the regular rampages of hurricanes, being able to monitor and run a business remotely too often is unfeasible, as managers fight daily battles with computer worms, viruses and the requirements of governmental statutes.

A hurricane the size and scope of Katrina is deadly serious business. Its aftermath includes a tragic human toll, massive property damage and a weakened economy further staggered by an oil and gas industry still trying to estimate the extent of the damage.

Homestead, Fla., was the community hardest hit by Hurricane Andrew. Click here to read about the VOIP infrastructure the city built with some of the recovery money.

The inability to know how much damage had been done until workers were able to return to the work site is an indication of how systems operating in isolation leave us blind once we leave the control room. The role of technology in being able to predict and track a hurricanes path is to be applauded; the difference between being able to evacuate a city before a storm hits versus getting slammed with a 1938-style punch can be the difference between life and death. The resilience of technology used to communicate information during a hurricane is admirable. The next step for you is to demand the resources needed to ensure business continuity and recovery after a disaster.

eWEEK magazine editor in chief Eric Lundquist can be reached at eric_lundquist@ziffdavis.com.

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