Katrina shows technology can't always trump nature


During the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, people grabbed for their cell phones to contact friends. As Hurricane Ivan threatened the coast of Florida last year, parents there e-mailed updates to their grown children in other states. And when London's subways were bombed this summer, many affected were able to text message details to reporters and send photos from their camera phones.

Technology has changed the way people respond to disaster, enabling quick communication and connections helpful in locating the missing, mobilizing relief efforts or providing reassuring access to another person. And even though some of those services were spotty at times - overloaded - full usage was soon restored amid calamity.

But for thousands across the Gulf Coast, the past week has been an exception.

Hurricane Katrina came in and showed the developed world that those things we rely on every day to get us out of jams of all sizes - phones to call car clubs, Internet connections to search for directions, BlackBerries to send messages asking for advice - cannot overcome the worst of nature.

Even the time-tested technologies have largely failed the Gulf Coast. There is no electricity to run water-filtering pumps. There is no land-line telephone service. Roads will not allow the passage of cars, hybrid or otherwise. And walkie-talkies, while functional, operate on different frequencies,

rendering them useless for inter-rescue-agency communication.

"The entire technology infrastructure in this part of the country has been wiped out," said Steve Jones, a communications professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago. "The power grid, telephone lines, other types of communication. It's all gone and could be gone for a very long time."

Man has grown used to managing nature through inventions. Dams usually hold back water, surge protectors can keep computers safe during lightning storms, simple umbrellas keep us dry. It's all reinforced the value of ingenuity, and led us to believe at times that we are invincible - or at least able to find ways around obstacles.

Communication, in particular, has become a relied-on staple, something easily taken for granted in these days of cellular telephones and pagers, personal digital assistants and e-mail. When those things disappoint during normal times, our stress levels rise. But during times of catastrophe, the effect becomes intensified.

"When people lose their electric power, or their [Internet service provider] goes down or their home computer blows up, they feel like they are losing important tools that help them communicate and that store precious things," said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life project, a nonprofit research center in Washington. "For at least some residents of New Orleans, it's a serious deprivation, though certainly not on the order of having good drinking or running water or food."

Those on the Gulf Coast directly affected by the storm - which uprooted cell-phone towers, snapped telephone poles as if they were matchsticks and drowned electrical cables - have more to worry about right now than whether they have Internet or cell-phone access.

Michael Carliner, an economist with the National Association of Home Builders, believes that most - if not all - of the homes in New Orleans will have to be leveled and rebuilt, too damaged to survive. Cars are gone, wedding pictures destroyed, heirlooms lost.

Thousands are dead or missing. Pets have drowned, children have gone hungry.

"There are many other things with which they're dealing and are going to be dealing, for which the Internet would not be a help when it comes to basic survival - things like rebuilding their lives and rebuilding their homes," Jones said. "I think the Internet is pretty far removed from those kinds of efforts."

Still, it has helped in other ways. Droves have turned to it for news about the storm and its effects and to find ways to help through condolences or donations - so many that Keynote Systems Inc., a California company monitoring online performance, reported that for Wednesday and Thursday "both the Red Cross and the Salvation Army Web sites have slowed significantly under the load."

Internet and tsunamis

The same thing happened to sites all over the Internet in December when tsunamis crashed into shoreline along the Indian Ocean, in July when London came under attack, and four years ago when terrorists commandeered airplanes and the country's attention.

"Eight or nine or even 10 years ago, you wouldn't have thought of the Internet as a place to turn first," Rainie said. "Now people instinctively do."

Sept. 11 trained Americans to turn to the Internet for information and commiseration. A year after the attacks and because of them, 10 million people said they looked for news online more, 2 million said they e-mailed more, and 1.5 million said they turned to the Internet to make donations.

"It's a natural place now where people do very human things," Rainie said. "They pray and they emote."

For this storm, it still has been that for those on the outside who feel a need to connect. But for those on the inside, those most affected, it means little - there's no way for them to access the information.

And even if there were, some wonder if many of those who live on the Gulf Coast, a traditionally poor area, would turn to it. About 32 percent of American adults - typically the elderly, poor or uneducated - do not use the Internet, down from about 50 percent in 2000.

"Many of the people who are affected and who are literally now in crisis - life or death crisis - mode, are not people who ever had Internet access," Jones said. "To think that getting them Internet access or teaching them about the Internet is going to make any kind of difference in the short term is ridiculous."

In the long term, however, Jones expects that technology - once restored - will help families reconnect and survivors find help. He also hopes it will "preserve some of the memory of this event and make it accessible to us" as it did during and after Sept. 11, 2001.

Emergency equipment

He also expects this experience to change the way we do things. Cities may invest in emergency communications equipment, like that used in war zones. After Katrina, Biloxi officials trying to track down help from disaster-service companies borrowed a satellite phone from a television station because their phone lines were down and cell phones didn't work.

"How do you get word to the 100,000 people who are trapped in New Orleans who may not have access to radio or telephone or what have you?" Jones said. "We just don't really have a handy, simple and effective means of doing that. I think this does show us that there are limits to what we can do with communications technology."

That's not necessarily a bad thing or a fault of the medium, said Glenn R. Schiraldi, an instructor at the University of Maryland, College Park specializing in stress management.

"I don't look at it in terms of being let down by technology," he said. "Technology has given us a leg up, but that doesn't work always."

Sun staff writer Jamie Smith Hopkins contributed to this article.

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