Video: Hurricane technology

By Senior producer
msnbc.com
updated 8/29/2006 4:43:17 PM ET 2006-08-29T20:43:17
COMMENTARY

With Ernesto looming off the coast of Florida and the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina upon us, today is a good day to tally the many lessons learned over the past year.  Among them, Katrina proved to be a good test of the strength and shortcomings of technology.

What didn’t work?

A big surprise was the number of people who reported a lack of cell phone service after the storm.  So many of us have cell phones exactly for these reasons—emergencies, staying in touch with loved ones when we’re on the go.  Yet, as soon as the cell towers came down in the wind or were flooded, the mobile systems were kaput.

First responders also indicated spotty service in the emergency dispatch systems—the police, fire, and ambulance dispatch.  While many rescue workers could find ways to contact their headquarters, few had decent communication with neighboring communities.  One fire captain even said his team relied on the old-fashioned method of just sending a runner to the next town to deliver face-to-face information.

Other notable failures were cable television and DSL lines, proving that even in this day and age a battery powered radio is a must have.

What worked?

Besides those good, old, battery powered flashlights and radios, another piece of nostalgia was a life saver—the pay phone.

I imagine there is an entire generation of young people today who have never touched a pay phone, and many of the phone booths appear to be in a state of disrepair. 

But, there’s a case for not letting those roadside phones fall by the side of the road—they worked straight through the Katrina aftermath.  For some people, finding working pay phones meant a quicker reunion with loved ones, and they were also used by rescue workers when other communications failed.

Text messaging also proved to be effective, even though cell phone calling failed.  Texting requires less bandwidth, and those messages got through.  We reported stories of families reunited through text messages.

Finally, wireless Internet came into its own during the weeks following Katrina.  Bloggers with Wi-fi were communicating with the outside world, and telling their stories of rescue and recovery.  In fact, Wi-fi worked so well that many cities are proposing offering it for free to keep residents connected during these kinds of disasters.

What next?

Hurricane Katrina also marked the debut of some very high tech disaster aids.

In Mississippi we saw rescue workers searching flooded lands and debris piles with the aid of unmanned flying robots.  These devices look like small remote-controlled toys, and they are able to hover over land and search for survivors without risking the lives of the emergency responders.

Radio frequency identification was used by some coroners to tag recovered bodies.  This made the process of identifying the deceased more efficient, and expedited the process of returning the remains to surviving family members.

Either of these tech developments could be invaluable in the event of a catastrophic storm, a tsunami, or a major terrorist attack.

In the end, it takes a combination of high and low tech during emergency situations, and a lot of common sense.

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