High Tech Not Always Best for Communicating During Catastrophe

3 04 2011

Many in the Emergency Management field focus on purchasing new communication technology or upgrading to the next version of software or phone service that promises to solve all communication issues in a disaster.  Well, might be important to slow down and remember that for all the benefits of high tech communication products may become pretty worthless during a disaster event where electricity, phone service, and the Internet are not working.  Below is a good article that illustrates the point.  Published in the New York Times on March 27, 2011.  Quake Area Residents Turn to Old Means of Communication to Keep Informed, by Martin Fackler.  Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/28/world/asia/28phones.html?_r=1&pagewanted=print

MIYAKO, Japan — To Ryo Orui, a high school junior, almost as frightening as the trembling of the earth or the wailing of tsunami sirens was the loss of his cellphone signal. When Japan’s big earthquake struck, Mr. Orui said, he felt a wave of panic at not being able to instantly contact loved ones, or get news on what was happening.

So he jumped on his bicycle and pedaled around this tsunami-ravaged fishing port on Japan’s rugged northern coast to check on the safety of his parents and classmates.

“I felt so isolated,” said Mr. Orui, 17. “You don’t realize how much you rely on something until you lose it.”

Among the casualties of the magnitude 9.0 earthquake on March 11 were modern communications networks, which proved surprisingly vulnerable. Millions of people in eastern and northern Japan, including Tokyo, lost some or all cellphone service. A total of 1.3 million land lines and fiber-optic links also went dead.

While those interruptions pale in comparison to the human tragedy of the earthquake and tsunami — 27,000 people are dead or missing — the fragility of modern communications has emerged as one of the catastrophe’s sobering lessons.

In a technology-crazed nation where many people were glued to cellphones and accustomed to the Internet’s nearly instantaneous access to information, being cut off has proved disorienting and frightening. Many local governments in the hardest-hit areas, desperate to reach residents with important emergency information, have reached into the past for more tried-and-true means of communication, including radios, newspapers and even human messengers.

“When cellphones went down, there was paralysis and panic,” said Shoji Ogasawara, the head of emergency communications at Miyako’s City Hall, where the tsunami filled the first floor with foul-smelling mud. “Everyone was running around asking, ‘What happened to the nuclear plant? What happened to our town?’ ”

Throughout the country, people have turned to low-tech alternatives in their sometimes frantic search for news of loved ones in quake-affected areas. They have posted notices on bulletin boards and recorded tearful pleas on television. Even in Tokyo, normally a high-tech showplace for the nation, residents have turned to improvisation.

A small shop near Tokyo Station that specializes in products from Fukushima Prefecture, the site of the stricken nuclear plant, suddenly founded itself crowded by people who came because it carries newspapers from that region, which are hard to find elsewhere in Tokyo. About 500 people now visit the store each day to scan the newspapers’ lists of names of those in Fukushima’s refugee shelters, a manager, Yutaka Suzuki, said.

While Tokyo’s cellphone service has been restored, much of Miyako remains cut off from cellphones and the Internet.

The city’s main way of releasing the names of survivors of the disaster is to tape printed lists on the walls of City Hall. Lacking e-mail, officials deliver by hand these lists to other city offices for posting.

To warn residents in the event of another tsunami, Miyako relies on a network of more than 300 outdoor loudspeakers and sirens, some of which date to the end of World War II.

Waves from the 25-foot tsunami also knocked out roads and electricity. As a result, city officials say, radio has proven to be the most reliable medium to get information to survivors scattered over a wide area.

Within a week of the earthquake, a group of residents got permission from the city to create a small, emergency radio station, Miyako Disaster FM, which began broadcasting on Tuesday from what had been an unused room in a building run by the national farm cooperative. They equipped it with a few microphones on a folding table, and a transmitter whose signals reach up to nine miles.

While large stations provide national news, Miyako Disaster’s founder, Hisao Hashimoto, said his fills a need for very local information: stores that are open, goods that are for sale and above all, messages from people looking for missing friends and family members.

“In a disaster, radio has been the best way to get real-time information,” said Mr. Hashimoto, a 56-year-old magazine editor who said he had long dreamed of starting a radio station. “All you need is a hand-held receiver and batteries, or a car radio.”

On a recent morning, a wave of excitement filled the cramped studio: minutes after broadcasting a message from a relative looking for a woman named Noriko Yamaguchi, someone from a refugee center called to say Ms. Yamaguchi was there, and safe.

“These are the moments when you realize how much the community is depending on us,” said Ayako Kimura, 34, an office worker whose role as chief on-air personality has quickly transformed her into a local celebrity.

As Internet service is restored, Mr. Hashimoto has begun to use services like Twitter to spread word about the broadcasts. But radio, he said, remains the most important medium for another reason: the large number of elderly in Japan’s rapidly aging rural communities in the north who shy away from the Internet.

That was evident at Sokei Elementary School, one of 61 makeshift shelters housing Miyako’s some 4,900 survivors of the tsunami, where many of the 130 people sleeping on the gymnasium floor are middle-aged or older. Many said they had become loyal listeners of Miyako Disaster’s twice-daily broadcasts.

“My generation doesn’t use the Internet,” said Emiko Okubo, 57, a restaurant worker whose home was washed away.

Many shelters are also printing their own mini-newspapers. In his free time, Katsutoshi Maekawa, a city employee who works at the Sokei Elementary shelter, produces the Sokei Community Daily, a one-page newsletter that tells refugees here about events at the shelter and surrounding neighborhood.

“Paper can be read right away and passed around,” Mr. Maekawa, 34, said. “No turning on a monitor, no online connections, no keyboards.” Even younger Japanese like Mr. Orui, who prefer to go online, say weeks of being cut off from the Internet have made them realize how reliant they had become on new technologies that could be so easily disrupted.

“Cellphones and the Internet were the first things to go,” said Eri Itobata, 17, a high school student who volunteered to help Miyako Disaster radio. “Thankfully the old technologies were still around.”

Ken Belson contributed reporting from Tokyo, and Makiko Inoue from Miyako, Japan.

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