Sandy, Sandy, my darlin', you hurt me real bad

At least 74 deaths. An estimated $50 billion in economic damages. Superstorm Sandy measured 1,000 miles across, lashed winds up to 90 miles per hour, dropped 12.5 inches of rain on Eaton, Maryland and 34 inches of snow on Gatlinburg, Tennessee. The storm forced evacuations from Ocean City, Maryland to Dartmouth, Massachusetts. In its wake, some 8.5 million homes were without power. These numbers alone can’t help us comprehend the impact of the huge storm that hit the Eastern Seaboard this week. So we look at just a small slice of it: the critical role of communications in preparing for, surviving and recovering from a natural disaster.

On Monday, October 29, President Barack Obama held a press conference and urged Americans under siege from Hurricane Sandy to stay inside and keep watch on for the latest information. The Federal Emergency Management Agency encouraged the public to use texts and social media outlets to stay informed. The Democratic Governors Association (DGA) set up a "bipartisan list of East Coast governors on Twitter" to help get the latest advice and warnings out to people in the path of the storm. East Coast Members of Congress were using Twitter to distribute weather and service alerts.

Politico’s Steve Friess criticized the President and FEMA for failing to highlight emergency phone numbers or key radio station frequencies to tune into since widespread power outages were expected. TV and radio are still the primary methods of getting information about Hurricane Sandy to the public, but social media are increasingly important to those efforts, FEMA chief Craig Fugate said.

In the pre-smartphone era, public officials exhorted people to have a list of emergency phone numbers available and broadcasters displayed them as well as radio frequencies on the screen in the event all else failed. Gov. Bob McDonnell (R-VA) did reference two useful phone numbers — 211 for guidance on emergency shelter locations and 511 for traffic information — and Mayor Vincent Gray (D-DC) said that people should call 311 in storm-related emergencies.

Matt Thome, spokesman for the Safe America Foundation, a non-profit disaster preparedness advocacy organization based in Marietta (GA), points out that, ironically, as modern technology becomes more omnipresent, it's old-fashioned modes of communication that are becoming ever more reliable. People with landlines, for instance, are more likely to continue to have service because the copper phone lines will continue to work even if the electricity goes out — provided telephone poles don’t fall.

Kim Fuller, of the disaster preparedness firm James Lee Witt Associates, said President Obama may have avoided issuing phone numbers to prevent call centers from being overwhelmed before the storm. “President Obama is giving out the Web address only is because you normally don’t hear him saying anything before a disaster strikes,” Fuller said. “So they might be getting a little ahead of themselves. What they don’t want to do is give out a phone number and have people start calling if a federal disaster declaration isn’t even declared for their county.”

Well before the storm hit, New York City had a plan in place to issue text mobile alerts through the Personal Localized Alerting Network (PLAN) system, a program managed collaboratively by Federal Communications Commission, FEMA and wireless carriers. At 8:36 pm EDT on Oct. 29 the nation's first alert using PLAN, instructing residents to take shelter, successfully arrived on mobile devices across the city.

The FCC, working with FEMA, issued a set of tips for communicating during a natural disaster emergency. The guidelines included limiting non-emergency calls, keeping calls brief, using texting as an alternative to voice calls, and tuning in to local TV and radio stations for emergency information. Verizon Wirless offered a tip sheet for extending cell phone battery life.

When Sandy had passed through, FEMA’s Fugate acknowledged that many victims could not get help via the Internet. “Yes, I know there’s no power and the Internet is not going to help and you can’t call 1-800-FEMA. That’s why we also put people on the ground, starting today, to go door to door, start getting into those neighborhoods.” He added, “It will take time to reach everybody. But we also are aware that those that can call in can call 1-800-621-FEMA. And people already have registered. You can go online. Our website is mobile friendly, so you can register online if you’ve got connectivity. But we’re going to go into the neighborhoods with the state and reach out to everybody that may need assistance.”

Overall, FEMA received high remarks for the response to the storm. "This is the all-new FEMA, and the leadership is very, very good, very focused," said Dr. Irwin Redlener, a pediatrician and director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. "They're doing an excellent job." Gov Chris Christie (R-NJ) -- whose state bore the brunt of the storm -- said that "cooperation has been great with FEMA here on the ground," while Gov Jack Markell (D-DE) said that people in his state have been "really, really impressed by the response of FEMA." Gov Martin O’Malley (D-MD) wrote: “FEMA has been extremely helpful and has been embedded with us at the emergency operations center since before Sandy hit the state. Under President Obama’s leadership, FEMA arrives before the disaster hits and is ready and willing to help in whatever capacity is needed.” In New York, FEMA has publicized assistance. And FEMA set up online pages for Connecticut, New York and New Jersey storm victims.

Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro said that residents did not receive timely information on how to get food, shelter and tools for putting their lives back together. "There was no one there to answer these questions," Molinaro said. "I need answers, and the people need answers." FEMA said in a statement, "Community relations teams are on the ground in the hardest-hit areas of the mid-Atlantic going door-to-door to inform disaster survivors about available services and resources and to gather situational awareness."

Inevitably, the response to Sandy, especially by FEMA, is being compared to the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. At the time of Katrina, FEMA had manpower and planning problems and confusion about the roles of officials in responding to disasters, according to a 2006 report by the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general. The report said that with the destruction of communications infrastructure, it took FEMA officials about three days after Katrina's landfall to grasp the magnitude of the hurricane's destruction. [Former FEMA chief Michael Brown -- who was criticized for his slow reaction to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 – actually accused President Obama of acting too quickly on Hurricane Sandy.]

As Sandy approached, we saw reports of telephone, cellphone (and here), cable TV and Internet service providers making preparation.

Before the storm hit, the FCC activated the Disaster Information Reporting System to monitor outages and coverage loss of phone, internet and TV services. The voluntary system allows communications providers and broadcasters to report infrastructure problems and provide the FCC with a situational overview. On November 1, the FCC shared information regarding communications network improvements and challenges:

  • Approximately 25 percent of cell phone towers were out in the affected areas: flooding, power outages, high winds and snow disabled the cell towers, leaving millions of customers without service,
  • 25% of cable TV services were also damaged,
  • FCC Public Safety & Homeland Security Bureau Chief David Turetsky said, “Our latest data indicate that calls throughout the affected area can be received at 9-1-1 call centers, though in limited cases calls are being re-routed to another center or do not contain location information. We have reached out to every affected 911 center and the relevant state authorities, and we are talking to communications providers about what can be done to address this.”

From Reuters we learned:

  • Verizon Communications, which serves many of the states in the hurricane's path, appeared to have suffered some of the worst damage from the storm. The company said that storm surge resulted in flooding at several Verizon central offices that hold telecom equipment in Lower Manhattan, Queens, and Long Island "causing power failures and rendering back-up power systems at these sites inoperable."
  • Sprint Nextel, the No. 3 U.S. mobile provider said it was seeing outages at some cell sites because of the power outages across all the states in Sandy's path including New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Washington DC, Maryland, North Virginia and New England.
  • AT&T said it was experiencing some issues in areas heavily affected by the storm.
  • People complained of outages to their cable telephone, Internet and television services from providers ranging from Comcast, Cablevision Systems and Verizon in New Jersey, Connecticut, and New York.

The storm also impacted Internet infrastructure:

  • There were sporadic issues with undersea cable Atlantic Crossing-2 (or AC-2), sources said. These cables are the main data lifeline between continents.
  • Telx reported that most of its New York and New Jersey data centers were on generator power as of 9:30 a.m. EDT.
  • As feared, 75 Broad Street, which houses several data centers in the low-lying Zone A of Manhattan, was severely impacted, affecting Internap, Peer 1 and other providers.
  • INIT7, a Swiss provider of IPv6 infrastructure, was affected by a storm-related power outage at Equinix’ 8th Avenue facility in Manhattan. The company also reported connectivity issues to Miami and Los Angeles that have since been resolved.
  • Equinix reported widespread issues with its data centers in the areas around NYC, but said they all have 48 hours of fuel
  • A Navisite data center in Manhattan’s Zone A is also running on generators. It has refueled and has enough to last 72 hours and will refuel as needed.
  • Renesys concludes that about 10 percent of the networks in the New York metropolitan area went down, which is really low given the fact that the local electric company, ConEdison, actually cut power to the lower portions of Manhattan, where a lot of those networks are based. It also says something good about the planning of those whose networks stayed up and running, and those who keep the backup generators running and who aren’t getting much sleep.

As computer centers in Lower Manhattan and New Jersey shut down or went to emergency operations after power failures and water damage, the New York Times reported, companies scrambled to move the engines of modern communication to other parts of the country. Others rushed to find fuel for backup power generation. In some cases, things just stopped. As more of life moves online, damage to critical Internet systems affect more of the economy, and disasters like Hurricane Sandy reveal vulnerabilities from the sometimes ad hoc organization of computer networks. In places like Manhattan, advanced technology comes up against aging infrastructure and space constraints, forcing servers and generators to use whatever space is available. Power is the primary worry, since an abrupt network shutdown can destroy data, but problems can also stem from something as simple as not keeping a crisis plan updated.

As the storm and flood waters recede, we’re already seeing stories that will raise issues for policymakers. There’s the headline grabbing Romney/FEMA questions, but also simmering debates in communications policy. Our friend Harold Feld wrote early in the week about how the FCC tried to require that cellphone carriers provide back-up power to cell towers and the legal wrangling that prevented it. The Wall Street Journal’s Arik Hesseldahl wrote about how when he old reliable phone networks are creaky and central offices are flooded and wireless phone networks are strained to the breaking point with demand for voice calls, one of the most precious things someone might be able to find is an open, free and reliable Wi-Fi connection. And we saw that AT&T and T-Mobile didn’t need a $39 billion merger to be able to work together to give better services to their customers.

But what this week teaches us, again, is that during an emergency, one of the most precious commodities is information and the ability to communicate it without impediments. We’ll be back next week and ‘til then, we’ll see you in the Headlines.

By Kevin Taglang.