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Nature Versus Technology

The Derecho of 2012 has given us insight into our relationship with technology.

A snapshot of summer 2012 so far: Tyson's Corner is filled with laptopped exiles basking in air conditioning, power outlets and WiFi. People drive around tree-riddled neighbhorhoods getting a dose of cool air and charging their phones before discovering that open gas stations are a little more far flung then expected. Friends with power and internet access become ports in the storm.

I was one of the lucky ones, our power flickered but it returned. Our FiOS phones and local TV channels went out and cell phone signal was down to a single bar of non-3G coverage. It was strange to have great internet signal while no phone service. I was very thankful and cognizant that others had suffered damage to their house, lost power and were suffering in this terrible heat.

Leave it to Facebook

My sister-in-law got married on Saturday evening in the midst of all this chaos. With communication networks brought to their knees, we found interesting ways to keep in touch. The venue lost power and plans kept shifting. With phones on the fritz, it turned out that Facebook and a few text messages slipping through helped save the day. The wedding was beautiful and even though there were missed showers, cancelled hair appointments and some creative obstacle avoidance driving on Loudon County roads. 

Who you gonna call? 

As we now know, the situation throughout the region was dire. Probably the most worrisome technology failure was the  in many Northern Virginia locales. With all of the investments in upgrading emergency communications in the past decade, it's almost unbelievable that our phone systems are vulnerable to a storm and that it would take so long to reestablish service.

Losing access to Netflix, Instagram and Pinterest is not a matter of life and death. Twitter was filled with angry complaints about something that really is a mere inconvenience points to our ability to be petty. The inability of local utilities to enlist help or contact work crews because of the loss of phone services, well that is significant.

Problem solving

We have many ways to access information and breaking news. This storm and its destruction caused us all to be creative. No phones? Try Twitter or Facebook. The radio never went offline, but local TV wasn't accessible from some providers even if you had power. You may have discovered that your portable ancient TV buried in the basement didn't work any longer to pick up over-the-air transmissions since the swith to digital broadcast. The WiFi at your local coffee shop can't be relied on if the shopping center loses power. Local libraries were filled with patrons who wouldn't be able to find their library card if asked. We found a way to keep in touch, even if it required patience, sweat and some creative thinking.

Don't forget...

All along the way to the wedding, we saw police and emergency personnel working to bring normality back. Major intersections without traffic lights became dangerous and officers stood in many using their bodies and hand gestures to remind oncoming speeding vehicles that they needed to stop. We saw the devastation that a single tree could bring. We understood that delayed text messages were 21st century problems.

Before the next storm, there is a lot to be done. Utilities and emergency services may have to completely reevaluate their back-up systems. You should as well. Remember what worked and what didn't.

Maybe change your habits to keep your cellphone charged, have batteries for that portable radio and maybe invest in a UPS (an uninterruptible power supply) which protects your equipment when there are power spikes and drops and provides some backup battery juice to allow you to get connected even when power is unavailable for emergency communication.

We all need to prepare our technology for emergencies and prepare our patience as well. People without power in the midst of a heat wave have a right to be upset, and are likely to be unhappy with the response times. The biggest frustration we all feel is the lack of information. Learn from this episode and plan for the next.

There is a lot to be thankful for

I am thankful for reporters who venture out to get the story when their own situation is less than ideal. I am thankful for members of my community who share their updates and photos. We are all thankful for the utility workers working in this terrible heat to try and get us back online and the emergency personnel scrambling to keep us safe. I am also thankful for sites such as Twitter and Facebook and my trusted smartphone that allowed me to connect me to both local news and the world beyond where no one is complaining about the heat.

So, how did your technology help you or fail you? Are you going to make any changes before the next calamity? Did you see any ridiculous behavior? Did you realize that you might be a little technologically dependent? Share your thoughts in the comments box below!

Terry July 05, 2012 at 10:21 PM
Easy fix. Press your Utilities to upgrade their infrastructure (bury lines if possible). Plus if they replaced old wooden telephone poles with modern metal poles they wouldn't had so much trouble. Plus if they kept up trimming trees back they wouldn't had so much of a problem!
Heinrich Hertz July 06, 2012 at 12:06 AM
Hi, Utilities are regulated. Underground work in a populated area is expensive and unpopular with voters. Having trees trimmed by utilities is like getting your hair cut at the school for the blind. Nothing is ever easy.
Adrienne July 06, 2012 at 10:05 AM
My technology failed me and continues to. While my phone worked, I lost DSL Internet connection. It is still history, and Verizon cannot give me an estimated restore time. My AT&T cell service was gone for two days. My Verizon MiFi was gone, basically no bars, for five days. My Verizon cell phone would text, but not call, for days. Because all my publishing software is on my desktop, and I have no Internet delivered to it, I am losing readers and SEO ranking on my daily blog. This isn't the fault of trees. It results from the lean and mean decisions that have been made by utilities. They are no longer able to respond adequately to emergencies. Speaking of management, yesterday five bucket trucks from North Carolina parked on my street with nothing to do. They had come to help, but had to await a task order from Dominion Virginia Power. They waited five hours. How's that for management?
Sandra July 06, 2012 at 02:16 PM
Adrienne, I was in your situation as well. We were lucky enough to get our power back after 1 day (thanks NOVEC!) but Verizon, well, all they did was keep me on hold for hours at a time to report problems, then tell me "24 to 48 hours" for everything to be fixed (which turned out to be blatantly false). We were cut off from everything - no DSL, no landline, very spotty cell service, etc. (all of it Verizon). I too work from home on a desktop, and had no way to access and work with anything on the cloud. I understand that Verizon had numerous outages, but just wish they would be more upfront with the public on the status of repairs (repeating "24-48 hours" doesn't go over well when they keep telling you that day after day). Also, Verizon requires you to talk to 3 separate departments when reporting different problems (landline, internet, cell) which means waiting on hold for hours. Not efficient, and annoying as heck when your calls keep dropping into the void. BTW, we do have a couple of smartphones, but didn't have 3G so that didn't help.

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