If Katrina Happened Five Years Later

Today we’re marking the fifth anniversary of Katrina devastating the Mississippi coast and exposing the criminal inadequacy of the federal levees in New Orleans. And most of the focus is on how far the region has come in five years.

But what’s on my mind today is how different the communication, media and information experience would be if Katrina was coming ashore today.

I was watching the approach and aftermath of Katrina with a lot of interest – I have connections to both New Orleans and the Mississippi gulf coast. And I happened to be in a position to be well-equipped to leverage the technology that existed at the time to uncover and distribute information.

I’ll forego the long narrative for some quick-hit observations on the difference between Katrina in 2005 and the experience as it would be today.

- Then: Right before the storm, New Orleanians were told to get out. So almost all of them left for … whatever seemed right to them as they headed north. On the road they had little if any information about where to go or how to get there. Houston became a favorite destination because, well, it’s Houston. You know there are hotels there and you know how to get there. It was a safe bet. You might have wondered if there was a smarter option, but it wasn’t worth the risk. Creeping along in the massive traffic to the sure bet was what made sense. Today: As dad drives north, mom is using the iPhone or Android to research options. She can already see on Waze that I-10 west of Baton Rouge is a mess, so continuing north looks like a better option. Zooming Google Maps in on Alexandria shows a bunch of hotels, and she clicks to call the Holiday Inn. They have a room, so she books it. They use a GPS app to take a back way in instead of staying with the masses on Interstate and get into a refuge eight hours earlier than trying to drive to Houston with the masses.

- Then: I first knew Katrina would be really bad when my wife IMed me the wave-height buoy page for Waveland. It had reached something like 28 feet early that morning and then went offline. With TV reporters long since bailed out, that was the only piece of information I had about conditions as the storm came ashore. I was at work that morning and didn’t have access to a television, but I imagine reporters were phoning in reports from inside their safe-distance hotels with observational updates. If you were watching TV, maybe you would know about it. Today: Assuming wireless communications stayed afloat; both reporters and average people would have broadcast text-based updates and photos (since everybody has a camera on their phone now) through Twitter in real time, and I would have known what was being reported through Twitter as well, either through actively searching for updates or just the Re-Tweet ecosystem. I might have seen a photo like this as it was happening, not a week or so later:

Waveland

- Then: Early reports from New Orleans were along the “dodged the bullet” line as reporters did their typical job of reporting what they could see and what they were told by authorities. The failure of the federal levees was not understood until well into the day of August 29. I recall a Times-Picayune update where a reporter had gotten out on a bike after people started calling in reports of flooding. The reporter rode over to the areas, saw the damage, road back and filed a story describing what he saw. If you were on your PC and went to nola.com, you might have seen it. Or if you were watching CNN you might have seen that they saw what nola.com was reporting. Today: Flooding reports likely would have been seen much earlier coming from stranded people. Most of the stranded would not likely be Twitter users, but one guy with an iPhone and Twitter would be all it took to get information and images out immediately (assuming, again, that cell service was up). And “New Orleans is underwater” would be trending real quickly. And the T-P reporter on the bike wouldn’t have to return to the newspaper office to file a story. He could stay in the field and broadcast the news and photos to the world all day just using his phone.

- Then: It took the media a long time to realize what was going on at the Convention Center and generally how little relief was coming to those stuck in the city. CNN applied a lot of pressure but it took a long time for that pressure to result in a resolution. If you were watching CNN or other networks, you knew about it, and that was about it. Today: The suffering of those at the Convention Center and elsewhere in the city not only would have been known earlier though information coming directly from the scene, but once the news was out there it would have been Re-Tweeted a million times and spread through Facebook like wildfire. The pressure on the government to act would be coming from millions of Americans, not just the TV media.

- Then: The evacuees were scattered and hopelessly disconnected from information about their city. The dumb little cell phone in their pocket might only connect them to another evacuee; not to any kind of information about what’s going on back home. My company was among those creating applications where “missing” New Orleans residents could be accounted for, but that required individual interaction with a PC. The technological hero of Katrina – Google Earth – had just been released a couple of months earlier, so few were aware of the amazing job the Earth community did in stitching together flyover photos and other information about conditions. And even if they knew about it, the only real way of getting that information was to open up a PC and look on Google Earth themselves. I was a Google Earth user at the time, and I used the images to help my friend Dave know that his house was underwater. I called him to tell him what I was seeing as he sat in Houston. Today: An evacuee would (assuming again that wireless networks would hold up and handle capacity) be able to stay in touch with everybody that mattered to them through Facebook. They could read news, see photos, get information on resources in the area they found themselves, etc. No doubt communities would have formed quickly to update gas and hotel availability and the like. Being geographically scattered today does not mean you are disconnected. Somebody asking the Internet about conditions on a specific street in New Orleans would get answers back almost immediately from a huge community willing to help.

Then: With New Orleans closed down after the flooding, information about what survived and what didn’t came out in a trickle. I have an email that was circulated a week after the failure of the federal levees describing a relief worker’s drive around the city that provided updates on specific spots around New Orleans. While the media had been reporting general conditions of flooded/not flooded for a while, that specific information was almost impossible to come by. I remember CNN broadcasting long videos of helicopter flyovers as a way of providing a little detail for those seeking it. I was first back in New Orleans six weeks after the flood, and part of our task was to get pictures of a house whose owners still didn’t know its fate. I took shots with a standard digital camera, downloaded them that night and emailed them along. Today: Just about everybody doing relief or otherwise finding themselves in the city right after the flood would be taking pictures and posting them – immediately or not long after. Many of those would be automatically geo-tagged and no doubt robust Google Map collections would be created by the mapping community to give real-time views of much of the city. And those collections would be viewable on the phones in the pockets of many New Orleans evacuees. Specific information would be readily and almost immediately available.

The real technological failure of Katrina, of course, was the wholly-inadequate federal levee system that was supposed to protect New Orleans from this relatively minor storm event. The absence of that technology is what doomed the city. But the experience of its citizens would be vastly different today given just the personal technology changes of the past five years.

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