What Hurricane Sandy Taught Me About Mobile Technology and Social Media

Hurricane Sandy satellite photo as it hit New Jersey

Hello all, and excuse my absence of late! If you hadn’t heard (ha!), Hurricane/ Superstorm Sandy hit the eastern coast of the United States, and headed straight for the state of New Jersey in particular. That means it hit where I live.

I initially started to write this while I was sitting in my car, writing on my iPad while my iPhone was getting recharged using the car battery, but I’m finishing it up on my laptop almost a week later. Hurricane Sandy hit my home, and we were without power for almost four days. A tree fell on our house, but fortunately not through the roof. There was a state of emergency in my town for a couple of days whereby no one was allowed in or out of town. Unless you were emergency personnel, you were not allowed to drive the streets. While we were lucky to get power within a few days (especially with very cold weather setting in), there are still thousands without power where I live, and even those who have lost their homes entirely. I was actually one of the lucky ones. So, you can understand why I might have had other things going on this week. ;-)

My house the day before the storm.

Originally, I really struggled with an idea of what to write about this week, but this hurricane made some things very clear, and they are things that needs to be strengthened as a global necessity, not just as a local necessity. This storm made the following very evident to me: mobile technology and social media are critical in this day and age.

I only knew what was happening in the “outside world” and was able to make connections with my cell phone–a smartphone. Granted, the 4G network was incredibly slow, especially in the beginning, because everyone locally was doing the same thing. Something was better than nothing. Since I didn’t have power for my TV or radios, my phone was everything. It made me wish I had a MySpot mobile wifi connection created from my cell phone so that I could transmit the wifi signal to my other devices, but having at least the 4G did the job.

My house after the storm.

In the end, everyone who knows us had a way of knowing that we were okay. Between my husband and I, we texted my brother-in-law, my father-in-law in Ecuador was able to call my husband, and I had sent notes on Twitter and Facebook to let people know we were okay. There wasn’t much more that I could do. Until we had full power and Internet capabilities, I could only recharge my phone on a car recharger and send out the occasional note to update our status on social media. Saving battery life was essential to make sure that we could always be able to communicate. So writing up a blog entry was less important than making sure that our loved ones knew what was going on around us.

We were without electrical power for almost four days, and they were four of the longest days and nights I can remember. You have to remember that I live in a first-world country, where having constant supplies of electricity not only for powering things is commonplace, but it also runs things needed for basic survival, such as keeping perishable foods cold, and providing heat on cold nights (and we had some very cold nights). At my house, having had some Scouting training (I was a den leader for my son’s Cub Scout group for almost 5 years), and just even having a fireplace, we had some advantage. We had done some preparation so it wasn’t so terrible–just terribly inconvenient. There are others, such as my sister, who didn’t have power for more than a week. (She stayed with my parents who had power restored quickly.) There are still work crews from all over the Eastern Seaboard and the MidWest who have come in and have worked around the clock, and continue to do so to still get the rest of New Jersey power again. It is still not done. We’ve become a society that is dependent on its electricity, for sure. But we also have become a society that mostly depends on the power of internet connectivity and having means of communication powered by electricity.

My husband and son keeping warm by our fireplace while we had no power.

Every day that we’ve had with power since it’s been restored, I’ve tried to remind myself about the many people in my state who have lost their homes and/or still don’t have power. I was greatly inconvenienced, but in the end, even with the tree falling on my house, I was still blessed and one of the lucky ones. My town, overall, didn’t sustain the kind of damage that other towns did. The big pond/lake and our town was drained before the storm in order to prevent flooding, and that worked. We didn’t have the water damage or flooding that other places did. Most of the damage we had was due to wind damage, so there were a lot of downed trees that took down power lines. Once trees began to be removed, and crews fixed the wires, then things started to get back in order. As I write this, there is still gas rationing in part of the state, which people need for their cars or even for generators to power their houses until regular service is restored. We’re not quite back to “normal,” but we are fairly close. Schools are starting to open back up for classes tomorrow after a week’s absence, many are returning to work, and shops are opening up again. New Jerseyans may have never been through something like this, but we are a resilient group of people. There is an expression that was often said well before the storm of “Jersey Strong.” That, we are.

But during this storm and its aftermath, I’ve had a lot of time to think about the importance of mobile technology and social media. Through SO much of the storm, my mobile phone was my lifeline to the outside world. Not only could we tell people that we were okay, but if we had been in serious trouble, it was our lifeline out. We would get messages and updates from friends and other resources through our phones. Was the storm over? I could track the storm either through the Hurricane Red Cross app or the Weather Channel app. Was it safe to go out? I’d receive text messages and emails from my town government to let us know what roads were blocked due to downed trees or wires. Where were there shelters if we needed heat, a warm shower and a solid meal? I could find that out as well. What markets had reopened after the storm for food, which gas stations were open with shorter lines, and where could we recharge our devices so we could continue to stay in touch and know what the news was? Different friends who had ventured out told me through social media. Having mobile devices and connectivity made knowing all that information possible. When we needed to have the tree removed from where it was leaning on our house, my husband called up our local tree guy, and his crew was out the very next day.  And in a totally 21st century way, having mobile devices kept us entertained at night, as I had loaded up some old episodes of our favorite television programs on my old iPad for my son, and on the new iPad for me. (During the day, we’d be cleaning up our yard and doing other things that would take advantage of the daylight.) Without these modern technological conveniences, it would have been a lot more difficult to get through those days.

But it also got me to thinking about how that technology could have been even better, and where greater improvements could be made. Two things from the technological side were apparent to me. First, connectivity could be improved on a global level, not just at a local level. More communications infrastructure and stronger communications infrastructure are needed to create reliable wireless hotspots. While 4G connectivity was available, it was spotty, and not always reliable during the storm. My husband does not have 4G on his phone, although I have it, so we were solely dependent on my phone for information. A secondary but equally important problem was, however, that using 4G exclusively drained the battery of my phone quickly, especially when the 4G service was very slow. In a stressful and possibly dangerous situation like this storm, that’s a bad thing.  I know there are several cities that have wifi service throughout the town, such as Philadelphia. We have many wifi hotspots, but they are not well connected between them, and they don’t reach to households around here. I found, once we had power and connectivity restored, that wifi connectivity on my phone or other mobile devices did not devour battery power on my mobile devices as much as the 4G did.

I started to think of places far, far away from me–and realized this is a global need. How are children in remote places supposed to get electrical power, more specifically battery power for a smart device? And even if there are miraculous power sources for these devices (which there are not at this time, especially in certain regions of the world), how would these children connect to the rest of the world?  Both improving battery life/power sources for mobile devices and improving the infrastructure for internet communication are key. It all needs to be set up in such a way that it doesn’t cost a fortune, is readily accessible, and can literally weather anything. It should be similar to using a radio–we can still get AM and FM signals, but we need a wifi version of this. I know that the network services in our area, especially AT & T and Verizon, said they were doing their best to provide and repair the 4G and LTE services damaged from the storm. Okay, I understand that. But in the US, as well as everywhere else globally, we need to start thinking about how to step up the technology so that getting wifi signals are as common as getting an FM signal on a radio. I’m sure that this is technology that is being worked on, but I feel like this storm proved that point very much. Perhaps the internet access providers needed to get ready for the storm by temporarily increasing the network bandwidth and boosting those wifi signals already present. I’m sure that I will be charged an arm and a leg for the amount of data I did use during this time, and the provider companies won’t be giving any storm discounts of any kind under the circumstances.

The other thing that became highly apparent was the importance of social media during this time. It was one thing to receive text messages and emails from my local government (I signed up for emergency messages), loved ones and friends, and to have access to a tiny web browser on my phone, but social media, especially Facebook and Twitter were essential! It was an easy way for me to check in with everyone who needed to know how my family was doing, but also for me to know how all my friends and family were faring as well. Even now, those family members and friends who are still without power are posting status updates letting us know that they are safe, with family or friends with power, or if they are toughing out another cold night. As I mentioned earlier, it was through social media venues that I could see the scale of the storm, through various messages posted on a continual basis. We found out that our local supermarkets were open through Facebook with fresh food, warm place to stop, and outlets to recharge our devices. It allowed communities to come together–multiple communities–to help each other. As I write this, it continues to be working. Posts on Twitter and Facebook are still working to gather supplies for those who are in more trouble than us, provide information for those who seek a safe shelter until their home is habitable again, and moral support, too, for each other. The power of social media is incredible.

When I took my social media class last spring, there were several purpose categories in which social media communications fell, namely broadcasting the self, the netizen, participatory culture, or how social media related to work/labor. To me, there were instances were all these purposes were used during this storm. Social media users broadcast about themselves, providing status updates on their well-being. The netizens were the local governments and other information providers such as internet news agencies, or even Twitter feeds of local government leaders (like Newark mayor Cory Booker) who kept apprised of his city’s situation by staying in constant contact through Twitter to help citizens who had extra needs. All social media users who got through the storm were part of a participatory culture, namely, they were part of the group of “storm survivors” that grouped together. It related to work because we could see how the power companies and other service companies were keeping their customers informed about the progress they were making with restoring power, and would ask customers for feedback on which areas needed more help. Even if one barely posted anywhere on any social media outlet, one could easily understand the breadth and width of this storm’s impact merely by reading the feeds coming from these outlets. I had more information that my husband at any given time because I was looking at all of this and absorbing it, whether it was for personal safety or just for information. It was invaluable, and truly emphasized the importance of social media not only now, but going forward.

Mobile technology and social media were essential in helping my family get through this storm, and it benefitted millions of others through this storm as well. Both of these things continue to be vital as the job is not done in recovering from the storm.

As technical communicators, I think you can see my point, but there is yet another point in which technical communicators are vital in pushing our agendas in our field. That is, helping to provide concise, cogent, correct, and clear information for our end users. One of the problems that I encountered with various apps and communications was that they were so poorly written and explained that sometimes it was difficult to understand the information being provided. This is part of why social media was so vital–there was more of a conversation among users to clarify what a website said, or what a communication said. So many who were providing the information were clearly not writers or natural communicators, and this in itself could be dangerous in certain situations. I’m hoping as we recover from Hurricane/Superstorm Sandy, as a technical communicator, I can try to push the agenda that experienced social media writers and technical writers are needed so that information is provided in a clear way that all people can access it easily, whether there’s an emergency or not.

I hope that technologists are working to make the means of communication stronger with stronger internet connectivity that doesn’t require much power, and that smart devices available can have stronger battery power so that recharging as often isn’t necessary, especially when needing to rely on those communication networks for information. I think social media has proven itself as a strong communication tool during this storm, and it has reinforced the notion to me that I need to continue to stay tied to it, because it’s not only connected to my career livelihood, but my livelihood at large.

Right now, I just have to try to recover and try to get life back to “normal.” Appreciating mobile technology and the power of social media make me glad to live during a time when we have these available to us. Now, I need to get back into the swing of being more technologically immersed after being mostly “off the grid” for almost a week.

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3 Responses to What Hurricane Sandy Taught Me About Mobile Technology and Social Media

  1. Rhonda says:

    I feel for you Danielle, and am glad you’re safe. I went through a few cyclones (hurricanes in US parlance) when I was in my 20s, long before the days of mobile communications and the internet — from memory, we just got together in one house and partied ;-)

    More recently, we were hit by a huge storm earlier this year (my blog post about my experience is here: http://sandgroper14.wordpress.com/2012/06/16/storm-hell/). Fortunately, I had a spare phone battery, but even then I had to restrict my use of the phone to preserve the batteries in case we were without power for the predicted 5-6 days. However, conserving my phone’s battery power wasn’t enough. We lost our landline (copper) phone connection as well, as the battery backup at the exchange ran out of power, and we also lost all mobile coverage (3G) as the towers lost their battery backup power too. We were stranded as far as contacting emergency services or family was concerned. That was really frightening — to know that you couldn’t contact anyone for help if you needed it.

    –Rhonda (technical writer in Australia)

    • Thanks for your comments, Rhonda! I think the thing is that here in the Northeastern US, we aren’t used to being hit by hurricanes or cyclones. A big snowstorm/blizzard, yes, but nothing like this. In my whole lifetime, I never remember being without power for more than a half day–ever. So to be without power for such a long time was a shocker, even though we were somewhat prepared. I think the experience, to me, showed me that technologists and STEM studies truly need to be emphasized, because we need to not only figure out how to make sure energy and communications last as long as possible for 1st world societies, but it can benefit all levels of global society. We were just put out for a bit. There are still people in NJ without power, and we’re being slammed again with a snowstorm right now. It’s not a good situation. Fortunately as I write this and the snowstorm is going on, we have power. Hopefully all those crews that came in from elsewhere to help made sure that our connections were super strong this time! All I can say is that I can also appreciate what you meant when you also said that you remember experiencing this in pre-mobile days. That came to my mind as well, and it proved to me that I am definitely a 21st century gal! ;-)

  2. Pingback: Gas Rationing Can Lead to Love | Sara S. Jansen

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