Reflections on Hurricane Sandy, media and disconnection [cross-post]

Cross-posted from my blog, Analog/Digital. Originally published on November 04, 2012.


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Hurricane Sandy: ParkedLast week, Hurricane Sandy pummeled the east coast of the US. Power outages due to extreme coastal flooding, high winds and fallen trees have caused food and gas shortages in my area that are only now beginning to be resolved. As I write, many fellow Long Islanders and New Yorkers are still without electricity, heating and hot or clean water. You have by now – and likely before myself, since I have been in a blackout for some days – seen the ghostly images of dark and empty NYC streets, subway lines under 10 feet of water, cars thrown upon sand banks on Long Island beaches, and rubble where houses once stood in New Jersey and throughout the region. I have documented some of the devastation in photos such as the ones in this post and more that I will share on Flickr over the coming days.

Power is still being restored in my neighborhood. Our electricity has just returned, but only a block away the lights are still out. 15 minutes away in all directions, coastal residents on Long Island and in Queens are still faring much worse. Many have lost their homes entirely. If you are in the area and want to volunteer your assistance to those struggling in the aftermath of the storm, visit nycservice.org to offer your help. Be sure to check your local transit schedules and road warnings wherever you're heading and keep roads clear for emergency vehicles. As of November 3rd, Most LIRR lines into the city are up and running on an hourly basis. Full fares are now being charged.


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I talked a bit about media representation(s) in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene last year. This post is along the same lines. There are plenty of commentaries on the political and economic impact of "frankenstorm" (ugh) Sandy pretty much everywhere. I don't have dramatic stories of severe damage to tell because we were largely spared (Hurricane Irene took our old roof, so we were inadvertently well-prepared for the heavier winds this time). The damage from Sandy has been harsh, but the immediate area in which I live was free from flooding and major destruction, with the exception of some fallen trees. Our major issue has been exploded transformers and downed power lines, which are unwisely suspended perilously in the sky. On cue, there has been some renewed political discussion about why the entire region does not have subterranean power lines, but I suspect as little will come of this as of asking why coastal NY has no protection from floodwater as is the case in, say, the Netherlands. It was only a Category 1 storm and the devastation has been extensive.

Before the storm, people rolled their eyes at the suggestion that this was going to be "the big one". Many stayed in their homes on the barrier islands (flimsy strips of sand sticking out in the Atlantic) to wait out the storm instead of moving inland. After the storm, rescue teams had to go out to areas in Zone A that should have evacuated in order save the residents who had refused to do so. It was too late for some. Was it a massive media failure that more people panicked prior to Hurricane Irene, which caused comparatively minimal damage last year, than prior to Sandy, whose effects have been devastating? In the aftermath of Sandy, especially with the upcoming presidential elections, the country will ruminate for some time on why/how our infrastructure buckled so easily under the pressure of the storm. But will we learn from it?


Hurricane Sandy: Inside Out

Blackout

As an anthropologist of technology and digital lifestyles, it was certainly an experience to be forced into a low-tech existence for a few days. It is possible that most people, myself included, like to think that they are prepared for "the worst" when they are probably not. In light of recent events, it might even be hasty to mock those doomsday shut-in weirdos on the discovery channel. For example, many people here stood in line for hours to buy expensive emergency generators from the hardware store before the storm, only to be hit with a gas shortage and unable to fuel it in the days after. They stocked up on food and drinking water, but when the power lines went done, fridges had to be emptied. Some household water supplies were tainted by sewage due to rising flood waters and others loss gas for cooking and heating. We don't think of all these basic necessities as "high tech" modern luxuries, but it has taken days for local authorities to get their mainframes up and running to even supply the energy and figure out where the broken transformers and down lines were.

Since I spend a majority of my life in some or other state of digital connectivity, immediately after the power cut I was initially struck by an imprecise feeling of emptiness with not being able to get online. All landline telephone, internet service and wifi networks died instantly. My cell phone service also went down or spotty for 4 or 5 days until AT&T shared its lines with T-Mobile. Ironically, AT&T service got my phone working for calls, but blocked data connections, so I could not browse any websites on my phone. By day 2 without power, I was irritated that I couldn't turn my TV on to see some news about the storm. I found an old transistor radio powered by a 9V battery (yes, both of those things still exist. Who knew?) which was my only channel of information during the storm and it was frustratingly non-interactive. The hosts kept saying things like "look at these images coming in" and "here is a chart" and "have you ever seen anything like this?"

I spent the cold nights (no heat) trapped inside reading or listening to music in between radio reports. Both of these are activities that, I now realize, have become habitually bundled up with other tasks that I'm normally doing online. Sitting in the dark doing either on its own felt irritatingly monotonous without the obsessive clicking between windows that normally accompanies my work habits. "Just" reading or "just" listening to music is no longer a full activity. It feels unproductive; like I'm not doing anything at all. The false sense of productivity I otherwise get from being connected to the web is, I'm pretty certain, a clear product of the induced ADD of a life permanently online and it was probably good to disconnect for a while to become more aware of it.

There was a palpable sense of desperation from people I encountered everywhere: always staring at their phones, refreshing their Facebook apps and longingly charging their laptops, as if we were all missing out on something essential.

By the evening of day 3, I surprisingly felt my need to be connected had all but dissipated, except for a nagging feeling like I "should" want to get online to get information. But information about what? Other than checking my mail and a few emails I had to send, nothing was too pressing. With the power outage and everything locally at a standstill, it was hard to imagine any substantial things going on in the rest of the world that I had any real urgency to know about. I did keep thinking of stuff that I would normally have Googled immediately, but instead had to make a short list to catch up on later. Yet there was a palpable sense of desperation from people I encountered everywhere: always staring at their phones, refreshing their Facebook apps and longingly charging their laptops, as if we were all missing out on something essential. As the days passed, that seemed to gradually fade, replaced by more important concerns of immediate survival as supermarket shelves emptied, gas lines got longer and nights grew colder.


Hurricane Sandy: No Gas For You

Disconnect

What I found intriguing about the media coverage is that in the multitude of speeches from NJ Governor Christie and NYC Mayor Bloomberg, listeners were urged to log on to city, utility and charitable websites for vital information affecting their survival: where to get gas/food/clothes/water; when power would be restored; how to survive harsh winter conditions with no heat; in which areas the water was no longer safe to drink; what bridges and tunnels were closed. And yet with mobile web and internet down, it was impossible for nearly 3 million people to log on and get this information. I have to wonder how many other T-Mobile users lost web access when AT&T blocked it.

Have we lost our ability to successfully go low-tech to transmit information? LIPA (Long Island Power Authority) is notorious for its inability to move at a suitable pace in restoring power. Throughout the disaster, it neglected to even provide service estimates of when electricity would be restored on the Island, whereas all other power authorities in the region were doing so on at least a daily basis. The LIPA emergency hotline went down for days and most people were unaware that you could text message in reports about fallen trees and power lines.

Still, news outlets proclaimed: go online for information. The NYC Mayor's office Twitter account was updated regularly, but since I had no web access for almost 6 days, I was never the wiser other than the insistence by radio news voices that this was the case. Calls for volunteers gave web addresses instead of phone numbers. It was truly frustrating feeling disconnected in my own town/city even when everyone else was without power, too. The frustration of disconnection – whether web-based or just a generalized feeling of being lost – seemed to affect the other residents of my town as well.

Stories of price-gauging, exploded generators and fridges full of rotten food united small groups of previously unknown neighbors tethered to the wall via their charging cables.

Shops and supermarkets with generators stayed open throughout the disaster. Some offered "charging stations" with multiple outlets for people to top up their phones, laptops, tablets and devices. These became popular congregating areas for commiserating locals as well as essential power sources. Information transmitted between phone-charging patrons was just as significant as the public broadcasts on the radio: Which stations still have gas? How long are the lines? Does the supermarket have bread? Water? Candles? Stories of price-gauging, exploded generators and fridges full of rotten food united small groups of previously unknown neighbors tethered to the wall via their charging cables.

While Google was putting together a fairly useful interactive crisis map, only a privileged few with functioning smart phones and apps could make use of it. The majority with no power and those with cheap dumb phones had to utilize street-based networks and word-of-mouth to get by. Did temporarily disconnecting from the web lead people to reconnect with their offline "communities"? I doubt it. Actually, a lot of people were acting like apocalyptic asshats. But I venture that those recovering from the storm will agree that honing our low-tech information gathering skills so that we can function in future states of disconnection is not an altogether bad idea.

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Tags: analog, anthropology, digital, hurricane, media, sandy, superstorm

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