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When disaster strikes: There’s no app for that

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I’ve never been one to pine for older technologies but today I do. As Hurricane Sandy moves towards our New York City apartment, it occurs to me that we’re poorly prepared. We have food and water, yes, but no reliable communication tools.

To be sure, our home has a galaxy of communication devices — laptops, iPads (s aapl), iPhones, Roku, Apple TV and more — but all of these will fail us soon after a power failure. If the city goes dark for days, our home will be cut be off from all information.

My parents or my grandparents wouldn’t be in this situation. They have landline telephones that can offer a path to the outside world even when the electricity fails. And if their phone lines went down, they would still be connected — through battery powered radios piping real-time information from Mayor Bloomberg and other authorities.

Ten years ago, our house would have had both a telephone and a radio. Now, instead, we have iPhones and Pandora — both of which will fall silent in a prolonged emergency. Technology, it seems, isn’t always progress.

And for other nostalgics, here’s an old-school emergency TV broadcast courtesy of my colleague Stacey Higginbotham:

6 Responses to “When disaster strikes: There’s no app for that”

  1. Never under-estimate the value of “traditional” communication tools in emergency. Letter box drops were a big way to target certain residential areas in the Brisbane floods with information such as garbage pick up days, clean up crews etc.

  2. Nadine Feldman

    After Hurricane Ike, we charged phones in the car. We were without power for two weeks. Fortunately I had spare computer batteries, and after a few days we could walk over to Rice University and charge computers there. We also have a battery-operated TV for emergencies, and that was helpful for getting updates right after the storm. Now we live in earthquake country, and Sandy has reminded me that I’m not nearly as well prepared up here as I was when I had to worry about hurricanes.

  3. Will Stewart

    Hey, Jeff — I’ve still got an MP3 player (NOT an Apple device, just a good old WMA-MP3 player) that has an FM radio in it that works pretty darn well. Of course … it doesn’t have speakers, so I would have to share the earbuds with one other person, and the two of us could listen. But it’s not something the family could gather round. And once the battery (rechargeable only via USB port) went out, we’d be right back in the dark, information-wise. :)

    • Thanks everyone for your thoughtful comments.. Will, that’s an interesting point that most devices used to come with FM built in.. Wish it was still so.. Fortunately, we came through the storm ok though internet went down (I ended up relying on Twitter on iPhone for news).. But our clean tech and structure reporters will definitely be using this as grounds for more reporting soon.. Stay tuned in coming days..

  4. Jeff, you drive home an important point. Gone are the days of electro-mechanical devices and along with that some of their priceless features…

    I have read on this site many articles on clean energy and advancement in hardware. However, it is the call of time now to have some true visionary ventures come up trumps with a self sustaining electrical device instead of relying on battery power.

  5. It is an interesting situation. I now only have ADSL and a VOIP landline, so I couldn’t even connect a POTS phone. Assume though in these situations the telco’s do have back up power supplies for their towers and infrastructure. Christchurch did pretty well in their earthquake, although they did ask people to use SMS rather than voice to save on traffic demands. There was also a movement to send POTS phones that people had lying around down to collection centres.