On my radar: Apocalypse now – what Hurricane Sandy really exposed

2012-11-17 12:55

Like many people, I was glued to my television set following Hurricane Sandy as it slammed into the east coast of America.

My brother and his family live in New York, so my interest was personal, but once I had established they were all safe and dry, I joined the rest of the world rubbernecking via satellite feed.

The combination of a natural disaster and 24-hour news channels make for addictive viewing.

One of the more memorable images was a shot of Manhattan the night after the hurricane had passed and knocked out power supplies.

One half of the borough’s skyline was lit up and the other half was in complete darkness: a different version of the haves and have nots.

However, the image that stayed with me most was of a group of people sitting on the floor in a bank, huddled around the end of an extension cord, all desperately charging their electronic devices from one plug point.

It highlighted just how vulnerable we are in a digital age.

To prepare for the storm, most people were concerned with waterproofing their homes and ensuring they stocked up on food and water.

But smartphones need to be charged within a 24-hour period.

Depending on the multimedia usage on a smartphone, battery power can be drained even faster.

When a massive event like Hurricane Sandy takes place, the people who are (literally) in the eye of the storm naturally use their phones even more: sending text messages, sharing photos, checking their social- media feeds, emailing and calling friends and relatives.

By the time the storm passed, most people in the areas without power had already drained their batteries. No battery power means no means of letting people know you’re okay.

No electricity also means no Wi-Fi, so no internet connection, the lifeblood of our digital age.

If cloud computing is our future, what happens when we can’t access our digital lives?

All the sophistication of our hi-tech lives was rendered useless.

An estimated 8 million homes lost power after Hurricane Sandy.

Access to fuel became the next problem.

The hurricane had damaged ports, which could therefore not accommodate fuel tankers.

Flooded underground equipment that sends fuel through pipelines were also damaged.

Without power, fuel terminals weren’t able to pump petrol on to tankers, and fuel stations couldn’t pump petrol into cars.

Even stations with electricity had difficulty staying stocked because roads were damaged and coordinating deliveries with suppliers was near impossible.

Millions of litres of fuel were stuck in storage tanks, pipelines and tankers simply because they could not be off-loaded.

Since people couldn’t connect via technology, they had to physically drive to storm-ravaged neighbourhoods to communicate or provide assistance, using more petrol than usual, and sparking fuel shortage fears.

Their fears were justified as petrol was being rationed in some areas.

Pictures of people queuing on foot at petrol stations, holding red canisters, should become iconic.

These vulnerabilities in our hyperconnected lives are a sobering reminder that we are – despite all advances in technology – still at the mercy of Mother Nature whenever she decides to re-establish the planet’s pecking order.

The queues at the petrol stations were like a flashback to the Mad Max movies of the 1980s that imagined survival in a post-apocalyptic world, where basics like fuel and water were worth fighting to the death for.

In the aftermath of Sandy, more extreme weather hit already devastated areas, prompting authorities to ask residents to vacate their damaged homes.

Most refused, as looters had started taking advantage of abandoned or vulnerable properties.

These die-hard residents were prepared to stay and fight off the marauders, just like a tamer, suburban version of a Mad Max movie.

In these situations, it’s a slippery slope between civilised behaviour and “do-whatever’s-necessary” survival tactics.

It’s beginning to feel as if we’re just one tsunami, volcanic eruption or perfect storm away from living out a Hollywood apocalyptic blockbuster.

»Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. Visit www.fluxtrends.com

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