Saturday, July 2, 2016

Crisis Communications in a Communications Crisis

When communications infrastructure is devastated for days or weeks in a horrific multistate natural disaster, how can city and state leaders or local volunteers orchestrate evacuations, aid, relief, and recovery? Where internet and electronics go out, lessons from the 1913 flood are useful

[The text below is a condensed variant of a keynote talk Handling a Crisis when Communications are Devastated: Case Study of the Great Easter 1913 Flood” given before the Greater Cincinnati Crisis Communication Workshop of the Regional Storm Water Collaborative. ]

If a colossal multistate natural disaster befell a third of the continental United States today—especially in the populous eastern half of the nation—and completely devastated all modern infrastructure, as happened during the widespread 1913 tornadoes and flood (still the flood of record in Ohio and Indiana), what makes us so sanguine that 21st-century technology will save the day? 

AT&T’s flooded facilities during the 1913 flood versus the flooded lobby of Verizon’s headquarters at 140 West Street in lower Manhattan almost a century later during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Message: Natural disaster can happen again and could disable 21st-century communications.

Yes, ordinarily we have satellite communications, cell phone towers, internet servers, wireless hot spots, and text-messaging and tweeting cell phones that keep us connected 24/7/365—but they all depend on a intact electrical power grid, finite battery life, and staying dry. All bets are off when the power grid blacks out and/or when electronics get wet.

When the lights went out during the 25-hour regional power blackout of July 13, 1977, resulting from lightning strikes to a Con Edison power substation, I was living in a 14th floor apartment in New York City. That hot and sticky evening, I vividly remember hearing all the humming motors of window air conditioners of my building and the building across the street all wind down in unison and die into sweltering silence. Lights were off. The refrigerator was off. The gas stove still worked, but the elevators were out (some people had to walk their dogs down and up 17 flights of stairs). Underground, people trapped in subway trains had to be led along tracks by workers with flashlights. But my husband at the time, a former Floridian who had lived through major hurricanes, also knew that no power meant no water pumps either in our building or at the water treatment plants; immediately, we filled every large container and the bathtub with clean water against what was clearly to be a long siege. And a few hours later, the building pipes were indeed dry and we were supplying neighbors with drinking water.
Before and after images of the US northeast and Canada taken from a DMSP (Defense Meteorological Satellite Program) satellite reveals the change in the nighttime city lights during the regional 2003 power blackout. The top image was acquired on Aug. 14, about 20 hours before the blackout, and the bottom image shows the same area on Aug. 15, roughly 7 hours after the blackout. In the bottom scene, notice how the lights in Detroit, Cleveland, Columbus, Toronto, and Ottowa are either missing or visibly reduced. Long Island, New York, was also significantly affected; however, Boston was left relatively untouched. Credit: Chris Elvidge, U.S. Air Force and NASA Earth Observatory 

Fast forward to the afternoon of August 14, 2003: it was déjà vu all over again when an even more massive power failure of similar duration blacked out eight states from New York to Michigan plus part of Canada. This time my car (in the Cleveland, Ohio, suburb of Lakewood) was trapped in the garage, which had an electric door opener. My desktop computer’s uninterruptible power supply battery backup thankfully kept beeping as it provided precious minutes for me to save open documents and shut down operations. Internet was unavailable and cell towers were out, not to mention the TV, although my hard-wired land line telephone thankfully still worked. (Hard-wired land lines are powered from a standard phone company, which has backup diesel generators—not sure about phone service through a cable TV operator—but note: cordless phones are useless because their base stations are powered through a wall plug.) Across the dial of a battery-operated transistor radio, I could find no signal from a radio station that could explain what was happening—clearly, many transmitters were out. All traffic signals and freeway lighting were dark. Air traffic control towers and runway lighting were inoperable. 
Houston during Hurricane Allison in April 2015 (note that the lights are still on although the freeway was impassable). Credit: Texas Monthly
During both major power failures, New York City and the U.S. and Canada dodged a bullet: the physical power distribution infrastructure was still essentially intact. Once the generators were up and supplying power again within about 24 hours, from the customers’ viewpoint it was back to business as usual: TV and radio stations were up and running again, as were internet servers and cellphone towers, not to mention the electronics in individual homes. Indeed, at least in Lakewood, the outage that evening had something of the character of a holiday party: with no electronics claiming anyone’s attention, the entire neighborhood turned outdoors to barbecue burgers thawing in their useless freezers and to enjoy summer nightfall and an unusual view of the starry night heavens from their front porches.
Several states received record-setting precipitation between May 2015 and April 2016. Credit: NOAA
Not so lucky are the people in Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas who have suffered a series of record precipitation events and major floods over the past 15 months since Hurricane Allison in April 2015 (see “Prayers and Lessons), as well as Missouri this past Christmas and New Year’s (see “Misery in Missouri).Most recently, just last month (June 2016) West Virginia has been drowning in unprecedented rainfall. And as anyone who has dropped a cell phone into the toilet or splashed a drink onto their laptop keyboard can attest, water instantly kills electronics. 

During Superstorm Sandy at the end of October 2012, New York City found that out bigtime, when storm surge flooding caused a Con Edison power plant along the East River to explode, instantly plunging lower Manhattan into darkness (scroll down here about two -thirds of the page to see video of explosion and instant darkness) and the city’s internet infrastructure was hammered. Many gas stations did not have power to pump the fuel evacuating cars. Of the few that did, most did not have internet connectivity to process credit cards—and ATM cash machines were also down. One wonders also whether their cash registers—which are basically special-purpose computers—worked even for cash transactions, or whether proprietors dusted off an old cash apron (note to self: put away an envelope of cash in small bills in event of a natural disaster).
Yes, a cash apron or belt-worn coin changer is totally retro, but it works reliably in the absence of electricity. Credit: Time-Life
Message: Extreme, widespread, intense, and prolonged rain events in the industrial and populous northeast and middle of the nation can happen again. Moreover, if a powerful 1913-scale storm system recurred over the same geography as it did a century ago, much of the nation’s communications systems would be directly in harm’s way. Even battery-powered devices would cease to work if the power goes out for longer than a day or two so batteries cannot be recharged.  
The interlocking nature of communications (and control systems) with the power system has drawn the attention of experts at the Department of Energy

Absent much 21st-century communications, are we ready for coordinating relief and recovery? What can be learned from how leaders and individuals responded during the 1913 flood?

Communications blackout
In 1913, the mainstream “broadcast” technology was newspaper publishing. Larger cities often had several newspapers—at least a morning paper and an evening paper—some of which printed multiple editions throughout the day to keep readers informed of breaking news. Supplementing phalanxes of beat reporters covering local and regional stories in person were national news stories carried by the Associated Press (AP) wire news service, which were filed both by AP staff reporters and by “stringers” (freelance reporters in various locales) around the nation. 

Newspapers also widely reprinted stories originating in other newspapers. Most nonlocal articles carried a dateline (the date and originating city or publication) but only rarely a byline (name of an individual reporter who wrote the copy). 

Although crude radio technology had been around for a decade (since Marconi’s famed 1903  transmission of the Morse Code letter S across the Atlantic Ocean in a widely hailed feat of “wireless telegraphy”), transmissions were largely sent and received by individual ham radio operators. By 1913, ham radio even had a rather unsavory reputation both for its unreliable experimental apparatus and for its considerable population of unlicensed and unruly teen-aged boys, who today would be called “hackers.” However, visionary engineers saw radio as a powerful new medium for delivering news and entertainment programming instantaneously to wide audiences. And the well-established wireline telephone and telegraph industries as well as some newspapers knew a threatening upstart technology when they saw one: in 1913, they were heavily lobbying Congress to restrain the development of radio broadcasting. But as of Easter weekend in late March 1913, no commercial broadcast radio existed: the mainstay instantaneous electrical communications technologies of telegraph and telephone all depended on overhead wires strung from poles, and were only point-to-point.

Enter Good Friday, March 21, when the wickedly powerful cold front swept across the eastern half of the nation from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Sustained hurricane-force winds reached 70 to 90 miles per hour in some cities, blowing down miles of telephone and telegraph wires. Freezing rain quickly followed, the weight of the ice pulling miles down even more miles of wires and snapping hundreds of poles (see “The First Punch).

Now, not every wire needs to be downed to silence transmissions; a few strategic breaks were enough to lead to a nearly perfect communications blackout over multiple states. Wireline communications that did remain were fitful and unpredictable. The consequences were dire: no information about the powerful storm system farther west could be received by the U.S. Weather Bureau in Washington, D.C.—and even if it had been, no warnings could have been telegraphed to cities and communities. So absolute was the communications blackout that in many newspapers no weather map was printed Easter weekend. Indeed, in some papers including in the ground zero of Dayton, Ohio, the published local forecast called for clear and sunny weather for Easter Sunday. Thus, not only was no warning issued about impending disaster, but in the absence of information the published forecast was fatally misleading.
Not only did page 1 of the March 22, 1913 Dayton Daily News forecast clear and sunny skies for Easter Sunday, but asserted that the weather bureau was “next to infallible” for its predictions!

That lack of warning coupled with the violent storm system’s fast approach accounted for Ohio’s hundreds of flood deaths (estimates range from the 420s to the 600s: see “‘Death Rode Ruthless’”). People in other regions that received timely and accurate warning (such as New York and down the Mississippi) had enough time to prepare to shelter in place or to get out of the way, and fatalities were dramatically fewer. And once the floods were raging, the torrents tore out railroad tracks and blocked the delivery of the U.S. mail.

So in 1913, how did people warn others and handle the catastrophe—distributing not just aid but also urgent information—when a major victim of it was the crippling of communications? 

Resourceful individuals took charge in ingenious ways.

Something old, something new
In Dayton and Hamilton, Ohio, individuals warned others in the cities of the danger that levees might be in danger of being overtopped by wedging open a factory whistle or continually ringing church bells. In Peru, Indiana, hundreds of lives were saved when one scared man ran through the streets pounding on doors and warning people to get to high ground. 
Credit: Federal Communications Commission - FCC EAS 2007 TV Handbook
Warnings about the flooding threatening lives in the middle of the state and devastating Dayton got to Ohio Governor James M. Cox through the fast action of two telephone engineers, Thomas E. Green and John A. Bell (see “The Governor’s Ear”). What Bell did for Dayton—keeping the governor in touch with the city every half hour—Green did for the rest of Ohio, causing Cox to call him “my electric scout.”
Telephone wire chief Thomas E. Green’s fast action with patching together emergency communications around the state of Ohio was credited with saving hundreds. Governor Cox later awarded Green (and John A. Bell) medals for heroic service during the 1913 flood. Credit: Cleveland Plain Dealer April 4, 1913 p. 4.

Cox—himself a long-time newspaper man and publisher of the Dayton Daily News—then held daily press conferences in the State House open to every newspaper reporter who could make it there, to spread the word around the state. Newspapers became the broadcast media for official notices, such as boil-water disinfection warnings and Cox’s notification of a 10-day bank holiday around the state. 

Moreover, as the social media of the time closely connected with their local communities, newspapers published column after column of messages from readers asking after relatives in the flood and tornado zones and publishing news as received of their rescues or their deaths. The newspapers themselves went to extraordinary efforts to typeset all this information—in the midst of a power outage, the Akron Beacon-Journal powered its linotype machine with motorcycle engines—and to distribute newspapers to flood-trapped residents around the state (see “‘Clevelanders Responding Nobly…’”).
Individual ingenuity played a big role in communications during the 1913 flood when the power was out. The Akron Beacon-Journal powered its typesetting machines with motorcycle engines to produce a small emergency issue of the paper. Credit: Beacon-Journal March 25, 1913, p. 1.
For handling what telegraph messages and telephone calls that could go through on remaining wires, heroic “telephone girls” and other telephone personnel who stuck to their posts as the water was rising around them to make sure the information got through. The physical wires themselves became the final escape routes to safety for dozens of desperate people trapped around Ohio and Indiana (see “High-Wire Horror”) 

And some of the much-maligned teenaged boys—college and even high school students—who were experimenting with ham radio technology transmitted Morse Code “wireless telegraphy” messages about the plight of flood-stricken areas, summoning aid and relaying information night and day for the first week until the Army Signal Corps operators could make their way into the flood zone with their more powerful equipment (see “Wireless to the Rescue” ).
Across Nebraska, Indiana, Ohio, and elsewhere, “telephone girls” stayed at their switchboards night and day to ensure communications.

Communities and individuals would be well-advised to think through options for communicating evacuation orders or other urgent notifications should a natural disaster also bring a concomitant prolonged power blackout: an outage that might last days or a week. Even if individual cell phones stayed dry and charged, would all cell towers—especially those at higher elevations out of flood zones—remain powered? 

Even seemingly older technologies such as church bells might not be an option for warning people. Many churches no longer have actual bells hand-rung by pulling ropes. Instead, either actual bells are electromechanically operated through a keyboard, or no real bells exist: their sounds are digitally synthesized by electronic carillons.  A civil defense siren would work if it had a gasoline or diesel-powered engine for emergency power (and was above any floodwaters). The federal Emergency Alert System—which occasionally interrupts TV and radio programs with warnings about severe weather—could help, but only if people thought to grab a portable radio and were able to ensure that it stayed dry.

©2016 Trudy E. Bell

Next time: Reconstructing Depth of Disaster   

A PDF of the full original presentation is here.