Silicon Insider: Technologies for Disaster

Let's do a little thought problem.

Given what we know about the disaster in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast from Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath; and given what we also know about modern technology, is it possible to craft a workable hardware/software/distribution model that is:

Cost-effective, so that it can reach millions, even the poorest of the poor;

Hardened, so that it can survive severe weather, long exposure and a long-term collapse of the power grid;

Portable, because disaster victims are inevitably on the move;

Robust, so that it can carry sufficient quantities of useful data, in multiple formats, quickly to both victims and their rescuers.

Here's what we already know happened during Katrina. First, the entire electrical grid on the Gulf Coast went down. So did, apparently, almost all cell phone service. I haven't yet heard about radio stations, though I assume that most were sufficiently damaged by wind (especially the towers) and water and that they went dark. Those that had generators probably operated until they ran out of fuel, or their natural gas lines ruptured.

We also know that New Orleans' citywide 800MHz police radio system survived the storm, but then died in the flood because transmitter sites went under water and the natural gas supply to the generator of its main downtown transmitter was halted. The city had gone to natural gas largely because owners of the generator sites did not want to risk the danger of permanent tanks of liquid fuel.

This collapse of the communications infrastructure likely contributed greatly to the apparent collapse of the New Orleans Police Department in the 72 hours after the levee break. Meanwhile, the only message the city was able to get out to the population as the weather deteriorated was, "If you can't get out, go to the Superdome."

We also know that a number of isolated communities, especially on the Mississippi Delta, were out of contact for several days, even to rescuers. And, we know that, on the Gulf Coast, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other relief organizations had trouble coordinating personnel and resources because of breakdowns in the communications grid.

Finally, we know that cable television and the blogosphere were unequaled in their ability to get "inside" the disaster and explain what was really happening. The Web proved its ability to almost instantly create virtual networks of reporters, analysts and researchers and cable news outlets no doubt saved many lives by stepping out of their accustomed reporting roles and acting as advocates for thousands of people (like those in the Superdome) who were being victimized by the slow-moving bureaucracy.

Unfortunately, the blog Webs, as powerful as they were, were probably only used by a million or so readers -- and all of them outside the disaster zone. Meanwhile, there is no shortage of anecdotes attesting to the fact that while the rest of America was stunned by the horrors of what they were seeing on cable news, few of the actual officials on the scene were watching television.

Getting Out the Information

So, let's ask the first question: In preparation for the next disaster, what information source can we get into the hands of millions of people that is so inexpensive that even poor people can own one, yet is still capable of carrying important and immediate warnings, notices and reports?

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