First lesson of Superstorm Sandy: Improve communication

A simple text message supported by any cellular telephone is an effective means of communication. Older technology, like the US Postal Service also works but was never utilized by LIPA. People sought to get information from traditional radios but reports on the radio were devoid of specifics about local communities.

The problems being cited could have been mitigated with a more effective use of technology. Newsday reported that in 2006 LIPA was warned that its critical infrastructure could not handle a major storm. One of the issues noted was that LIPA was utilizing a 25-year old mainframe computer system that could not track power outages amongst other critical functions like monitoring rotting utility poles.  Newsday noted that at LIPA’s headquarters engineers were working with paper maps and highlighters rather than strategizing with a computer system.

Residents of Long Island, who pay one of the highest utility rates in the country, were understandably outraged, not so much because of the lack power but more so about the absence of communication from LIPA. I was one of those residents who tried to use the company’s online outage system. With no access to Internet at home, many were reliant upon smartphones for Web access. The company’s mobile user Web site was inoperable for many days, which seriously hampered the ability to track LIPA’s progress in restoring power. The accuracy of that information was largely suspect to begin with; one LIPA report of outages in a town dramatically overstated the number of residents.

It was only after a CBS reporter asked LIPA about a proposed plan to re-energize homes on the South shore following an inspection that I found out what was happening. There was no information about this plan on LIPA’s Web site.

There should be county and state legislation that details reporting and communication requirements for utilities during a disaster. Federal legislation may also be appropriate given the immense size of federal funding being plowed into disaster areas.

As we learned from the events of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, effective communication is essential during a disaster and these events changed the way we plan for disaster response and recovery. Technology plays a vital role. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina it was problematic to locate missing people because of deficiencies in communications; transportation into affected areas was often non-existent; computer systems that had been part of the recovery plan were rendered useless with no electricity or gasoline.

It appears that some of the lessons learned from Katrina had no impact on disaster recovery planning in the Northeast. The lack of gasoline still remains an issue and those stations with fuel had no generators to pump gasoline out. Communications by the authorities were often unhelpful with tensions brewing by millions of affected residents.

New Yorkers are resilient and resourceful however and found other ways to track down gasoline using social media, like Twitter, or by going to the Website. Will our representatives legislate to facilitate a contingency plan for the transportation of gasoline or adopt new fuel storage policies?

Interestingly, older technology played a vital role after this disaster. The Verizon network suffered widespread outages and with no electricity, telecommunications were problematic. The old corded telephones were plugged in and there were lines for payphones – telephones that we thought were a distant memory. Others resorted to using amateur radio (HAM) to communicate, which was very effective. HAM radio has networks dedicated to communications outages (RACES, ARES). A battery-powered radio was my only connection to the outside world at one point.

Disasters will occur and Hurricane Sandy was unprecedented. Power outages were inevitable but poor planning and ineffective communication is inexcusable.

Hayes is a professor at Pace University’s Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems in New York. As the Computer Information Systems Program Chair at Pace, Hayes has cultivated partnerships with the New York Police Department, United Nations, and many other respected agencies. Hayes also manages the computer forensics laboratory at Pace, conducting research with computer science and information systems students.