Ordinarily, trying to have a conversation with people who have their eyes glued to smartphones, tapping away with their thumbs, is very annoying. It is as if people just wrap themselves in a cocoon with their mobile devices. A simple evening of watching TV with my family now involves my kids texting, friending and gaming. Such multitasking can leave anyone born before 1964 flummoxed. Then add the unrelenting noise from ringtones and email delivery beeps. Yet I found those very same devices, activities and beeps pretty comforting in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy.
We crave information. That need becomes heightened when we are confronted with the unknown. Awaiting the impact of Sandy was terrifying. New Jersey has suffered hurricanes and nor'easters, but not at the same time.
Consider this: An average hurricane releases an amount of energy equivalent to 200 times the electrical generating capacity of the entire world. Sandy covered 1.8 million square miles, covering most of the Eastern seaboard.
Before the storm, the flow of information from traditional outlets, the National Weather Service, state government, county offices of emergency management and public safety offices was easy to access. Then came the storm.
In a whirl, the flow of information shifted as power outages struck. The Web and wireless communications filled the void, a trend driven home to me in the following days.
As my family and I evacuated from the barrier island, my only means to share information with my constituents was through my Facebook page, updated via my Blackberry. Despite knowing there are over 800 million Facebook users, I never fully appreciated its utility until people told me Facebook was their only source for storm information.
Throughout the storm, our "iTechnology" kept working. Smartphones, tablets and social networking sites kept as many people as possible as informed as possible. Utility companies took reports of outages. Emergency management teams remained in contact with each other. Government agencies and charitable organizations were able to move resources where they were most needed. Reporters for the Press of Atlantic City filed stories via Twitter. We were even able to hold an election. Personal technology became a public virtue. No longer iPhones, but wePhones.
I am certainly not saying things were rosy. It is way too early for anything remotely celebratory. This storm was tragic. The devastation was unavoidable. The recovery will be long. Still, our ability to overcome the adversity is admirable, particularly when you realize thousands of individuals in an uncentralized manner began tapping out lifelines to people they have never met but cared about. Never would I, a child of the Cold War, have ever dreamed that Facebook and Twitter would be stand-ins for the Emergency Broadcast System.
With my family now home safely, with the past weeks fresh in my mind and looking ahead to the work that still needs to be done, my children's friending, texting and tweeting don't bother me quite as much. In fact, I think it's time for grandmom to create an online account, for safety's sake.
CHRIS A. BROWN