IF YOU HAVE NOT ALREADY done so, and even if you have, I urge you to visit http://www.redcross.org or call 1-800-HELP-NOW (1-800-435-7669) and donate whatever you can to the hurricane relief efforts. Also, The American Red Cross, with support of the worldwide Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, is launching a Web site and hotline to help assist family members who are seeking news about loved ones living in the path of Hurricane Katrina. Call 1-877-LOVED (1-877-568-3317) or visit the family links section of their Web site.
Over 160-mile per hour sustained winds, 30-foot storm surges — Hurricane Katrina, one of nature’s most powerful forces, literally destroyed thousands of square miles of America overnight. Entire towns were turned to rubble, infrastructure decimated, everyone in the civilized world can tell you everything you want to know about what happened, where it happened, and who it happened to – everyone except the people who were in harm’s way.
In basements and strong buildings and, eventually, in attics and on roofs, people who survived the initial impact of Hurricane Katrina found themselves in a world without technology: no water, no power, no food, no plumbing, and most importantly, no communication.
Turner, News Corp, NBC/Universal, and other big media companies had feet on the street and choppers in the air, throughout the ordeal. This created compelling multi-media news presentations for us, but did nothing for the people who were in crisis. They, who needed it most, were almost completely out of the loop.
When you take away our technology, we are all but helpless. So here are a few things for us to wrap our minds around.
Is there a technological solution to the communications problem? Transmitters destroyed, control rooms under water, towers knocked down, power out… how do we communicate? What type of technological solutions can you think of that would have allowed command and control to function and allowed ordinary citizens to send and receive potentially life-saving information? Now, that you’ve come up with hand crank generators, induction-powered flashlights, and stuff like that, think about what solutions might be available to unprepared, low-technology, ordinary people. They were the most in need. They needed information and communication first.
Do we need a National Database for Personal Medical Records? There are about a million people who lost most or all of their medical records during the storm. There are all kinds of privacy issues, but who would not trade them right now for the ability for an EMT or doctor in the Astrodome to know exactly what blood pressure medication they are taking, what dosage, and why?
How can you find your loved ones? The Red Cross has a “best efforts” solution (I’ve listed the information above). But, what attributes should a system like this really have? How can you offer peace of mind to a mother who is separated from her infant or a middle-aged son separated from his elderly father? We need another extremely low-tech solution here; refugees don’t have resources or technology, not even pencils or paper.
What was in your home? So many things are priceless, but after recovering from the initial shock of the trauma, you have to rebuild. And, yes, there are bills to pay, insurance companies to sue, and stuff you need to replace. What were they, where were they, and how much did they cost? These records are gone now – where should they have been kept?
There are many Internet solutions for some of these problems, but not all. Certainly central databases in secure locations can solve the simple record-keeping functionality, but there is a world of moral, ethical, and sociological issues surrounding those solutions. Are there wireless, online solutions? What is the state of battery technology? Is there any real way to plan or prepare for a disaster of this magnitude?
So, this week, I leave you with a few technology questions to answer and one last personal question: If you could only take what you could carry, what would you have taken (or kept) with you during this crisis?
On a personal note, I do not want to trivialize or reduce the plight of so many of our fellow Americans to an intellectual exercise. From the comfort of our homes, through the efforts of thousands of dedicated news professionals, we have seen images both profoundly disturbing and sad. At the top of this column, I asked you to donate money to the cause, here I simply ask you to donate some of your creativity and ingenuity. Our minds are a force of nature as well – a force, I believe, to be the most powerful on Earth.