Technology in times of disaster
Technology in times of disaster

Technology in times of disaster

Our technology can make us more vulnerable in natural disasters, but it can also make us safer, as we develop new methods of prediction and better defenses.

March 5 th 2010

As we become increasingly dependent on technology, occasional wake-up calls give us opportunities to reflect on whether that technology makes us more or less secure against the forces of nature. The recent earthquake in Haiti is one such opportunity. It got me thinking about the relationship between technology and disaster. How vulnerable is our technology in the face of "acts of God"? Are rich and poor nations affected differently? What role does technology play in disaster preparedness and recovery efforts? Does technology sometimes contribute to the magnitude of a disaster, and are there things we can do to mitigate this? How should we use technology responsibly and ethically in disaster situations?

My brother works for CARE and went down to Haiti for the first three weeks immediately following the earthquake to serve as their emergency communications coordinator. He is going back again in a few days for three months. Our family has relied on fragile, often malfunctioning technology to stay in communication with him there. Before he flew down the first time, he signed up for a Twitter account. He had never wanted to jump on that bandwagon before, but he realized this might finally be the time for it. Lots of friends would want to "follow" him.

After one last tweet from the road in the Dominican Republic (amazing in itself—we forget that so easily!), he crossed into Haiti and soon entered the communications dead zone. It wasn't until two days later when he tweeted "finally, Internet access!" that we knew he'd made it there safely. We take technology for granted when it is working fine, but how keenly we appreciate it in times of disaster. In the past, it might have been weeks or months before we had heard anything. The very fact that help was mobilized and he was on the plane less than 48 hours after the earthquake is a miracle of modern technology.

Most of the telecommunications services in Port-au-Prince were knocked out of commission by the quake. The landline phone system was so bad to begin with that a fairly widespread cellular network had developed; a large percentage of Haitians have cell phones. Intermittent texting was the only way people had been able to get word out to the rest of the world in the first few days.

Often our technology, confident though we might be in it, is no match for nature. The Titanic had been considered "virtually unsinkable," but it succumbed to an iceberg. Million-dollar gated community homes with fancy security systems turn to ashes in moments in a wildfire. It is naïve and prideful to think that we and our technology will ever be invincible, but we can and should continue to seek new ways of making it more robust and using it to defend against mega-disasters. An interesting article in Live Science describes how cloaking technology may one day be able to shield buildings and oil rigs from tsunamis and earthquakes by sending out vibrations that neutralize the incoming waves.

In the aftermath of a disaster, technology is indispensible. First and foremost, it makes communication possible—to put people in touch when family members are separated, to send out cries for help and direct rescuers to survivors. Sometimes it is only a poignant way to say goodbye. Technology also aids in recovery efforts, which rely heavily on machines (digging through rubble, transportation and distribution of supplies, medical care). Down the road, it will help in the rebuilding efforts.

Again and again we have seen that the poorer the locale where a natural disaster strikes, the more damage its structures sustain, and the greater the human tragedy. Major earthquakes in Seattle (6.8 in 2001) and San Francisco (6.9 in 1989), while nearly as strong as the 7.0 Haiti earthquake, were nowhere near as catastrophic, partly because of safer building techniques (though depth of the epicenter also had a lot to do with it). Less developed countries usually cannot afford the latest earthquake and flood resistant materials and do not have the organizational wherewithal to establish or enforce building codes. They don't have the sophisticated advance detection systems, nor could they coordinate a massive evacuation effort, even if they had early warning.

Urban areas are hit harder, of course, because they have more man-made artifacts that can be destroyed, and people are more dependent on technology for procuring the basic necessities of life (water, food and shelter). Technology, because of its link to urbanization, is partially to blame for the enormity of the devastation Haiti suffered in this earthquake. Rural people move to cities lured by the promise of a better life, as shown on TV or touted on the radio. (In Haiti, radio is far more widespread than TV.) There they cluster into poorly built shantytowns that are more susceptible to seismic shocks. As wealthy nations help Haiti to rebuild, one of the primary considerations will be providing technological training and resources for earthquake resistance so that Haitian engineers and builders can make Port-au-Prince stronger for the future.

Some people are saying there might be a silver lining to this disaster. One way or another, it is going to help modernize Haiti. Of course, that will bring with it all the challenges we face in more technologically developed nations. Will the costs be worth it?

Now that we have the ability to send images instantaneously around the world, news of a disaster spreads rapidly, and people with no immediate connection to those affected become compassionate and curious. On the one hand, technological innovation has enabled unprecedented fundraising efforts. The opportunity to donate by texting a brief message to a special number caught on and spread virally through social networking sites. Millions of dollars were raised for Haiti relief in the first days. And public awareness of Haiti's plight (both because of the earthquake and due to its historic struggles with poverty) has never been higher.

But there is a shadow side to the ubiquity of camera phones and the expectation of instant updates: we hunger for ever more immediate and invasive images. Yes, it is important to show the horror of what has happened. But news media are crossing boundaries once held sacred, honing in on private moments of grief. Consider the photo of a nun administering last rites to a dying man, the blue shroud already covering him. Perhaps he would have wanted to die in privacy. How often do we now see "This report contains graphic content; viewer discretion is advised," and how often do we click on it anyway out of morbid curiosity? I'm not sure the images thus shown are always necessary and honouring to the dead.

Technology (or more specifically, its failure) is sometimes the direct cause of disaster. This is obvious in cases like plane crashes, Love Canal, Three Mile Island, Bhopal, Challenger, Chernobyl and Exxon Valdez. We cannot fault technology in the abstract, though. Mark Manion and William M. Evan identify four causes of technological failure: "technical design factors, human factors, organisational systems factors, and socio-cultural factors." All of these are of human origin. Usually there is no evil intent, but the problem lies in human error, inadequate planning, missing information, carelessness, conflicting goals and time pressure to cut corners on quality checks. There is also a (thankfully much smaller) class of disasters involving technology put to evil uses, such as the mind-boggling collapse of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. I won't take the time to explore these; I'll only mention that more technology is being marshaled to screen passengers in the hopes of preventing future calamities of that nature.

The weakness of technology has been with us since ancient times. The Bible describes shipwrecks in storms and a tower that fell on people and killed eighteen of them (perhaps due to an earthquake or faulty design; we aren't told). What has increased since then is our dependence on technology, and our sense of fear and outrage when it fails us. Sometimes (fortunately) our fears are exaggerated, as in the case of the Y2K bug that never materialized as the foretold disaster.

Our technology can make us more vulnerable in natural disasters, but it can also make us safer, as we develop new methods of prediction and better defenses. With ingenuity we can overcome obstacles and recover more quickly. My brother told me about how radio stations would broadcast in Port-au-Prince, "Your relatives in ___ are looking for you; you can come into our studio and use our phone." I loved Carlos Barria's photo of a young man setting up a wireless modem for his Internet café in a makeshift camp in Port-au-Prince. It symbolizes for me the gift of human creativity, and our resilience in times of disaster. Thank God for technology when it is put to good uses like this.

Rosie Perera
 
Rosie Perera

Rosie Perera is a writer, teacher/tutor, photographer, lay preacher, and all-round computer geek. After graduating from college, she worked as a software engineer for Microsoft for eleven years, where she was part of the team that created Word. She then pursued a Master of Christian Studies from Regent College in Vancouver. During this time she also developed her skills and lifelong love of photography, through courses at Focal Point photography school. Now she combines all of these into a unique multi-threaded vocation. Her passion and research interests involve the interrelationships between faith, technology and the arts.

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