East End Tech: After Sandy, The Pros & Cons of a Wired World

I’m a seasonal East End resident and live in downtown Manhattan during the school year. So I’ve had an eventful week, to say the least.

I spent most of Monday out and about with my kids in pre-storm anticipation. It was barely raining and there was very little wind. My oldest daughter used her flip cam to record personal storm reports from the Hudson River Park, which she planned to upload to YouTube so that friends and family could watch.

She never got the chance.

At 7 p.m. the Hudson was high, but still contained to its banks. Cars drove freely along West Street. By 7:45 or so, the power was out. Even worse, there was four feet of water on my street, and it was rising quickly. Panic never set in, just chaos. I spent the next five hours bailing water from my lobby, joined by about 15 neighbors. We used sandbags, snow shovels, buckets, and dustpans—hardly modern technology—but were able to keep much of the water out of our building and save our lobby.

We were lucky.

At about 1 a.m. the water finally receded. We all shook hands, high-fived, and went to bed. As I sat in my dark, quiet apartment, with my family sleeping soundly, I took a few moments to reflect upon one thing that has occupied my mind ever since: Power.

I’m talking about electricity, of course. But it runs deeper than that. Electricity means power in every sense of the word. Power to come and go as we please, power to eat, power to learn and read and communicate—at least on the Internet.

In the first hours after the storm hit, I had no idea just how severe the storm was in New Jersey, or how lucky those Upper East Siders were to still have their electricity. I was naively enjoying a new set of sounds: the wind whistling, rain pitter-pattering down my chimney and the occasional police siren. I remember thinking that there weren’t nearly as many sirens as on 9/11, which was a positive sign. I thought everything would probably be OK in the morning.

How wrong I was—but then again, I had no power so how would I know?

I’ve been through shorter blackouts before; I only lost power for a few hours during Hurricane Irene and ended up hosting three friends who weren’t so fortunate.

Now it’s three days later and who knows when the juice will return. The waiting game is maddening! Will it come back in an hour? A day? A week? In a blackout we lose all sense of time, and that’s when we realize that Power truly is a mindset.

Without electricity, even the simplest tasks require us to adjust our thought patterns. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to retrace my footsteps inside my own home, because I instinctively forgot to carry my flashlight with me. Obviously, this pales in comparison to those who’ve lost property and loved ones, and it’s meant as an observation, not a complaint.

Here’s the bigger point: electricity is something we all take for granted. We’ve built an incredibly productive, fruitful society around electricity, and it never ceases to amaze me how vulnerable we are to losing it.

At the same time, I can’t help but think of all the ways that technology has helped us during this storm and its aftermath. First came the computer forecasting; there were models over a week ago that predicted where this unusual storm would hit, with fairly remarkable precision. Rescue workers have access to infrared cameras to search for survivors and submersible devices to help pump out the flooded subways and tunnels.

Faced with gridlock, New Yorkers are organizing neighborhood car pooling forums on Craigslist; too bad the ride sharing app I wrote about a few weeks ago is hung up in legal challenges.

Technology can’t stop disasters from happening. But maybe it can help us plan for the worst—and respond more effectively—the next time it happens.

I hope so.

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