Five Tech Lessons Learned From Hurricane Sandy

Super Storm Sandy IconWhen I first learned of Hurricane Sandy, I thought that the storm would simply drift out to sea. What kind of storm hooks left? But as the days progressed, it was clear that the storm would be quite severe. Even then, I didn’t worry too much. I filled the car with gas, stocked up on some food and I watched the news. It was more like entertainment than an emergency — but then things started getting real.

One of the things that surprised me about Sandy is power. I’m shocked at how easy it was to darken the New York/New Jersey area. A blackout for a few hours is not unusual, but this disaster blackened the land for days. To cope with this, I’m glad that I had my gadgets. Instead of being thrusted back into the 1800’s, I was able to cling onto some modern technology. That’s one of my tech lessons from Hurricane Sandy.

Solar Power Flash Lights Are Not A Joke — I think it was back in the 80’s when I first heard the joke of a solar powered flash light. Solar calculators gained in popularity, but they weren’t exactly high power objects. Plus, light is needed to make solar power work. That’s the irony in the joke — light is needed to make light. But with today’s improved battery tech, a solar powered flash light is a reality. I finally got to use my Etón FR160B. It’s a solar powered flashlight. It also comes with a hand crank for generating power. This helped when the lights went out last Monday night. I was able to listen to the radio and illuminate my darkened home. I didn’t have to worry about batteries. This was a very good thing, as batteries were in short supply.

The Etón FR160B can also be used to recharge some mobile devices. Unfortunately, my iPhone 4 is not one of them. Etón makes other models, but it’s basically the same idea. If you can generate your own power, you have a better chance of surviving in a storm like Sandy.

Traffic Lights Are Really Important — After seeing the power go out, it was starting to feel like NBC’s Revolution. That’s a TV show where humanity tries to survive without electricity. My situation was not as dramatic, but I could feel as if technology was pushed backwards. When the car was first invented, traffic lights didn’t exist. I’ve seen old videos of what that was like. The cars would dart across busy intersections in a chaotic manner. It was as if every busy intersection was a death trap. But initially, my life without traffic lights was kinda cool. Without having to wait for a red light to turn green, my commute was dramatically shortened. I began to wonder if traffic lights were even necessary. Couldn’t we all just treat intersections like four-way stop signs? It wasn’t too long before I found the error in that logic. The epiphany occurred when I tried to cross a busy road. I simply couldn’t do it. The path was intentionally blocked by police. The major roadway took priority over the minor one. I tried driving around, looking for an alternate path, but this didn’t help. Downed trees blocked streets. It was extremely difficult to move around on the side-streets. Eventually I found myself lost in South Plainfield, New Jersey.

Web-Based GPS Maps Are Bogus — Realizing that I was lost in the Garden State, I didn’t feel like using my iPhone. I was close to the limit on data usage, so I didn’t want to get hit with an overage charge. But with the amount of gas and time that I was wasting, I figured that a quick glance at my current location was a good idea. Fortunately, the data cap wouldn’t be a factor. Unfortunately, it was because I couldn’t go online. So there I was, lost in New Jersey, with no Internet access and few working traffic lights. While I still had a decent amount of gas in the tank, I could see the ridiculously long lines forming around what few gas stations were open. Obviously I made it home. But three days later, I would find myself with a near empty tank. To remedy that problem, I had to wait 3 1/2 hours for gas at Coscto — one of the few places with gas on Staten Island. Perhaps I could have avoided that situation if I splurged for an app with map data included.

I Should Get A UPS — The problem with Sandy is the unexpected. If you know for certain that the power is going to be out for a while, then you can prepare. It’s the uncertainty that makes the situation worse. While working in my office, the power went out… but only for a few seconds. That was long enough to shut off my Mac Desktop. This went on throughout the night… computer on… computer off… computer on… computer off. It was hard to get any work done with my computer constantly needing to be restarted. If I had an uninterruptible power supply, I could blast through those hiccups. That’s when I started to wonder, “Should my main computer be a laptop?” They can store their own power and they’re portable. While laptops are becoming more predominate than desktops, and they’re probably more convenient in a disaster like Sandy, I find it more comfortable and productive to use a traditional desktop setup. The point is that even a cheap UPS, with just a few minutes of uninterrupted power, would have been powerful enough to avoid frustration. If the power flashes out for a few seconds, it would be no problem with a decent UPS. If the power outage was longer, I could at least save my work and properly shut down my computer.

I Should Get Generator Too — Although, why stop with a UPS? With my own generator, I could do even better. Well before the storm, I spotted a natural gas generator at Costco. I was impressed. It seemed like a great thing to have in a disaster. I didn’t have the money to buy it, the expertise to install it or even the space in my car to get it home, but I was considering it as a future purchase. After Sandy, a generator is now an even more likely purchase. With my own generator, an electric car also seems like a good idea. I wouldn’t have to worry about gas shortages. These are expensive purchases, but it was beginning to feel like Mad Max out there. Sandy was a bad storm, but it could be much worse.

I was shocked at how quickly the stores emptied out of supplies. I’m not used to things like gas rationing or nights without heat. It made me angry. It was like being thrown into an era before electricity, or dystopian future. Neither was acceptable to me. Humanity is clearly dependent on technology. That’s why Sandy should be a catalyst for improvement. It’s certainly has me rethinking the way I’ll prepare for the next hurricane.