Does the Internet Help or Harm Our Ability to Weather Natural Disasters?

Hurricane Harvey
Satellite image of Hurricane Harvey, August 2017

Events like Hurricane Harvey feel like crises from another age. One minute you are sitting at your computer, conducting a web conference with someone halfway around the world, and the next minute you’re throwing a few belongings into a backpack so that you can climb into somebody’s wooden rescue boat. The internet creates the illusion that we have transcended the natural world, until the natural world drops in to remind us who’s boss.

In her biweekly column “The Digital Voyage,” Alexandra Samuel investigates the key psychological, social, and practical challenges of migrating to an online world. Reach her on Twitter @awsamuel.

Yet even as our technology puts us at risk by creating the illusion that we are immune from disaster, it has also transformed our ability to function when disaster strikes. At both an individual and community level, the internet has transformed the way we navigate major emergencies.  And the nature of that transformation tells us a lot about what we expect from technology…and what we need to expect from ourselves.

Help From Your On-Hand Tech

The value of tech in a disaster begins at home—or at work, as Dennis Kennedy points out in a 2012 article for the American Bar Association Journal. His tips:

  • Having extra batteries and chargers, especially solar or crank-powered chargers, can make a world of difference. And you can also change the power setting on your laptop or smartphone to conserve what juice you do have.
  • In a disaster, making cellphone calls can become all but impossible as systems get over loaded. People have found that you can usually get a text (SMS message) out even when you can’t call.

From simple flashlight apps and police scanners to first aid manuals and GPS tracking apps, your smartphone can be turned into a versatile tool chest. And your smartphone may also be the way you can be helpful to the larger effort, as Kennedy also notes: “By posting on Facebook or other social media, you can provide information about resources, problems and local news. By posting pictures of downed power lines or other dangers, you might help authorities to redirect priorities.”

Lessons from Katrina

What’s valuable to a single survivor is even more useful to the community as a whole. Since Hurricane Katrina looms large in academic considerations of the role of technology in emergency response, much of what’s written is directly relevant to the experience with Harvey. In their article on communications during Hurricane Katrina, Garnett and Kouzmin describe the kind of phone outages that would later prompt Kennedy to advise lawyers to stick to texting during a crisis, and show how that worked for organizations, too:

Ironically, one form of technology that worked during the response to Katrina was text messaging from cell phones. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) used text messaging to send messages requesting help around the country and received 200 replies. ACORN set up a message board on its Web site that allowed people to contact one another.

In their analysis of Katrina and other disasters, Majchrzak et al. look specifically at the way technology can mitigate the challenge of tapping into expertise, noting that “[d]isasters have wide implications for expertise coordination because the preconditions known to facilitate expertise coordination are limited or nonexistent in disaster response.” At a moment when it’s tricky to follow a pre-established game plan for coordinating among experts, you need a way to collaborate spontaneously, in real time—which is exactly where the internet comes in handy.

The solutions technology enables are only as strong as the humans it connects.

In the case of Hurricane Katrina, that coordination took place through a rapidly created wiki and database, as Majcrhzak et al. describe:

Within hours of Katrina’s landfall, the KatrinaHelp Wiki was created….An emergent group of people started adding any knowledge they had that might help others: names of people they knew were missing, names of people recently found, software that searched and matched missing and found names and notified people, addresses of shelters, directions to the shelters, job opportunities for displaced residents, types of jobs that victims needed or skills they had for jobs they wanted. The site quickly contained lists of shelters, government resources, animal rescue resources, the latest health and safety information, a people finder service, lists of job opportunities for displaced residents, activities for children in the affected areas, ham radio resources, fundraising events, and even a life and death section for immediate assistance all added by an emergent continuously changing set of participants.

Yet in its very helpfulness, the internet and mobile technology can lull us into a false sense of security. That’s particularly problematic. When the technologies themselves are so prone to failure in the event of crisis. As Garnett and Kouzmin write:

As with the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Katrina catastrophe showcased the vulnerabilities of communications technology. While some successes occurred, much of the communications infrastructure was made useless by water, winds, or mismanagement. Landline and cellular telephone service was virtually nonexistent for days because of flooding, power outages, and even theft of equipment….Attempts to get these systems back online were delayed by fuel shortages, conflicting demands for resources and lack of communication itself. Citizens largely lacked means of communicating pleas for help except in person. The toppling of cell towers, cutting of fiber-optic cables, and other devastation also frustrated relief efforts. Technology failures also hampered the response and rescue efforts.

The dangers these failures pose begin long before disaster strikes. In their article about hurricane preparedness among undergraduates, Simms et al. argue that:

it may be reasonable to assume that students believe that any necessary information will be made available in the event of an approaching storm, regardless of the unpredictability of storm track and strength; that is, the Internet, university officials, parents, the media, or other sources will provide information with sufficient lead time, making preparations well ahead of time needless and thus more costly than what they are considered to be worth.

In other words, for those growing up with the assumption of always-on information, the very idea of an unexpected event feels truly unimaginable.

When Tech Fails

Nor is this kind of tech blindness restricted to the young. In their analysis of the response to Hurricane Katrina, Garnett and Kouzmin criticize the way House and Senate commissions blamed communications issues in disaster response on “technology inoperability or, to a lesser extent, interoperability,” narrowly understood. As they write:

This view overlooks or diminishes the multitude of problems of interpersonal conflicts and behaviors, media expediency, and interorganizational culture differences or turf battles. If this posture leads to preoccupation with producing a “technological fix” to prepare communication for the next disaster, multiple problems would remain. For example, FEMA would still have culture clashes with the Department of Homeland Security and would be technology rich and competence poor. Intergovernmental relations would still lack the trust and working relationships that have worked well in the past.….Communications technologies can be made more weather resistant, more interoperable, and more reliable, but they still need to be complemented by a diverse range of highand low-tech communication strategies and the ingenuity to compensate for communication failures. Americans have been shown to be too fond of technofixes, whether in medicine, management, or communication. The official post-Katrina investigations indicate that that American national government is still fixated with technology.

We like to believe that even when technology fails to prevent disaster, it can still bail us out in our moment of need. And if it fails us then, it’s not our dependence on technology that’s the problem—it’s some problem with the technology itself.

But in disaster preparedness and response, as in many aspects of our technologized world, the real culprit is what’s referred to as PEBKAC: Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair. What’s between keyboard and chair? We are: the users.

As technology users, we have placed our faith in technology—even to the extent of expecting technology to deliver us from the very problem of climate change, which drives more and more of our natural disasters. But the value of technology in solving human problems (including human-made natural disasters) lies in its ability to connect humans together. The solutions technology enables are only as strong as the humans it connects. And in a moment of disaster—when communities either come together, or fracture apart—we find out how strong those humans, and those connections, really are.


JSTOR Citations

GOT DISASTER? Your on-hand technology can see you through

By: Dennis Kennedy

ABA Journal, Vol. 98, No. 2 (FEBRUARY 2012), p. 27

American Bar Association

Communicating throughout Katrina: Competing and Complementary Conceptual Lenses on Crisis Communication

By: James L. Garnett and Alexander Kouzmin

Public Administration Review, Vol. 67, Special Issue on Administrative Failure in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina (Dec., 2007), pp. 171-188

Wiley on behalf of the American Society for Public Administration

Coordinating Expertise among Emergent Groups Responding to Disasters

By: Ann Majchrzak, Sirkka L. Jarvenpaa and Andrea B. Hollingshead

Organization Science, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Jan. - Feb., 2007), pp. 147-161

INFORMS

Equally Unprepared: Assessing the Hurricane Vulnerability of Undergraduate Students

By: Weather, Climate, and Society

Jason L. Simms, Margarethe Kusenbach and Graham A. Tobin, Vol. 5, No. 3 (July 2013), pp. 233-243

American Meteorological Society

Alexandra Samuel is a technology writer, researcher and speaker. She is the author of Work Smarter with Social Media (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015), and is a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review and The Wall Street Journal. Alex holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from Harvard University and a B.A. from Oberlin College. You can find her on Twitter as @awsamuel and on her own site, alexandrasamuel.com.

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