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?

Well, we have basically four, in 10 permutations: television (broadcast and cable), radio (broadcast and satellite), telephone (landline, cellular and satellite) and personal computers/Internet (dial-up, cable modem and wireless). Needless to say, there is also some overlap -- i.e., Internet radio, Web-enabled cell phones, etc.

Now, of these, only a few are currently inexpensive enough to be owned by essentially everybody: more than 80 percent of Americans own televisions (and, as one recent survey found, the poor are more likely to use extra money on a large-screen TV than a PC). However, given the price of LCD screens, and the desire for the biggest possible picture, it is unlikely that most TVs will be portable anytime soon. Moreover, for the poorest of the poor, while the likelihood of TV ownership is high, subscription to cable TV is not.

Thus, perhaps we should think of television as a prime early warning system for areas at risk before the disaster, then as the prime information dissemination medium for everybody else immediately afterward. That already is TV's de facto role, but the last time it was really codified that way was during the Cold War. We need to get back to that, especially now when, as we see with CNN Headline News and Fox, it is now possible to present huge quantities of video, graphic and print information on the screen simultaneously.

However, that kind of coverage must find a way to migrate to broadcast TV. One solution might be government mandated (a la the old civil defense network), where a particular channel is designated for disaster broadcasts. But I prefer a more market-oriented system: Why don't UHF stations, or better yet, PBS National, cut a deal with one of the cable news channels to rent their channels to one of the cable news networks during an emergency? This would bring added viewers to the cable networks, added revenues to small stations and public television, and improve our nation's ability to get vital information out to its citizens.

But, in a disaster the size of Katrina, television is going to be of limited use. Unfortunately, so will radio. Though the greater number of radio stations increases the chances of some surviving, unless we go back to the old civil defense days (I'm old enough to remember the two little CD pointers on the car radio) I don't know of any established way to get the right emergency news pumped through to the survivors.

However, we do have a new phenomenon -- satellite radio -- which is still young but growing fast, and within the next few years is likely to be used by tens of millions of people. It has one huge technical advantage. Outside of a meteor collision, there are few natural disasters likely to strike an orbiting transmitter. And given the wealth of channels on Sirius and XM, it's hard to believe those companies wouldn't happily donate several channels each, specifically for the purpose of transmitting emergency information to different regions.

Still, radio has its own problems. The big one, as with TV, is electricity. Of course, radios, because they don't need to fire electrons through cathode ray tubes, require much less power. But even then, in an emergency that lasts a week or more, unless you are armed with a pocketful of batteries, you are going to run out of juice. Interestingly, even here a new-old solution has emerged. Open any outdoor catalog these days and you'll see a new generation of hand-cranked emergency radios that will produce hours of reception for just a few seconds of cranking. Ditto with flashlights.

Perhaps FEMA or the Deptartment of Homeland Security should require every county, or precinct, in the United States to have on hand a certain number of hand-cranked radios, preferably with part of the tuner (and antenna) dedicated to one or both of the satellite network emergency channels. Even better, offer rebates to any citizen who buys one of these radios. The combination of rebates and massive demand would likely drive the price of these radios down to where they could be afforded by everyone. Putting a hand crank on a certain number of police and emergency radios would be a smart idea as well.

Still radio's great weakness is informational bandwidth. There is only so much data you can push through an audio channel in a given time. You can tell people to evacuate, but you can't show them why, or list emergency shelter addresses in a way that can be easily written down.

Cell Phones Poised to Become Superlative Communications Tool

But cell phones can do both -- and in many ways, they seem to be a perfect disaster warning and relief tool. For one thing, they are incredibly cheap. They are also ubiquitous -- a billion are already in use around the world. Best of all, they exhibit Moore's Law, which means that every year they get more powerful, more loaded with features. The next generations of cell phones will feature built-in cameras, Web access, GPS, even television -- all for very little money. Millions of people of all ages will own them -- even more if the federal government begins to see them as emergency preparedness tools.

Imagine what would have happened if, on Friday, Aug. 26, every cell phone on the Gulf Coast and in New Orleans had rung, and carried a hurricane warning message. Imagine then if users had been given, region by region, a toll-free number to call carrying, in the case of New Orleans, the mandatory evacuation order, as well as, on the screen, a list of bus terminals and train stations for evacuees without cars. What if they could track what was going on around them by surfing the Web for wire service stories, watch cable news, and tour blog webs for what their neighbors were saying. Imagine if, right now, those people who refuse to leave their homes in New Orleans could see, on their phone screens, the health nightmare in which they find themselves and then call for help.

What would it take to pull off such a scenario? Obviously, the heavy traffic of calls would overwhelm current systems. But FEMA could construct a backup infrastructure for just such moments. And there is the question of robustness: cell phone towers get blown down, too. But cell range is growing by the year, and soon, Moore's Law is going to make satellite telephony affordable to the masses (the government could help there, too).

The Feds also need to understand the blogosphere as well: as admirable as were the aggregation sites of Terry Teachout, Glenn Reynolds and others, you still had to find them first. There should have been a link on the FEMA home page to them all, whatever their political persuasion. Meanwhile, with the rise of photo cataloging sites on the Web, victims should be able to use their phones to take pictures of their situation and immediately post them to some emergency site where they can be monitored and responded to.

And finally, as with the other technologies, with cell phones there is still the matter of power. We are all used to plugging our phones into the car jack or the charger cradle at home. In a disaster neither will be available for long. And though cell batteries last a long time, it won't be long enough, especially if we are using them for everything from calling relatives to downloading maps to shelters. I've never seen a hand-cranked charger for cell phones, but surely there is one out there. And if not, surely some inventor can create one, and some entrepreneur can build it. And perhaps the federal government could help by ordering 20 million of them.