Hurricane Ike and the Electronic Divide

* The Electronic Divide emphasizes the manmade weaknesses we create when we are too dependent on technology

For years we have been hearing about the Digital Divide - the chasm created when one portion of the world's population has full access to the broad range of knowledge posted to the Internet, and the rest of the population does not. This week, courtesy of Hurricane Ike, I am learning about another kind of divide. Call it the Electronic Divide, if you like. It's the difference between having, and not having, access to the utilities we all take for granted: electricity, water, phone, and even Internet. This Electronic Divide is putting a lot of people in very unfamiliar territory.

I live on the outskirts of Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city. Covering an area of 640 square miles, Houston is home to more than 2 million people - almost 4 million if you count the full metropolitan area. The center of Houston is only about 50 miles from the Gulf Coast. Normally we Houstonians like our proximity to the sea; Galveston Island and other nearby beach towns are our playground throughout the year.

Just four days ago, however, Hurricane Ike changed all that. Making landfall on the eastern end of Galveston, Ike raced across the narrow island and into Galveston Bay, then up the Houston Ship Channel and straight into the annals of history. On his way to becoming one of this country’s most costly natural disasters, Ike struck a terrible blow to Houston and many surrounding communities.

This article isn’t about the real human suffering of those who were killed or injured, or who lost their homes or livelihood. I couldn’t begin to cover that tragic news. My story is about something much more familiar to Network World readers: the disruption to our electronic lives.

For years we have been hearing about the Digital Divide- the chasm created when one portion of the world’s population has full access to the broad range of knowledge posted to the Internet, and the rest of the population does not. This week, courtesy of Hurricane Ike, I am learning about another kind of divide. Call it the Electronic Divide, if you like. It’s the difference between having, and not having, access to the utilities we all take for granted: electricity, phone and even Internet. This Electronic Divide is putting a lot of people in very unfamiliar territory. It also emphasizes the manmade weaknesses we create when we are too dependent on technology.

Even before Ike came ashore hours before dawn on Saturday, Sept. 13, his fierce winds began knocking out power to millions of people in southeast Texas and western Louisiana. In taking our electricity away, he also stole our other utilities that we have come to depend on, including water (no power for the pumping stations) and most forms of electronic communication (telephone, cellular and cable). As I write this, it has been four full days since Ike barreled through town, and despite mighty efforts by thousands of utility workers, most people in and around Houston are still sitting in the dark in more ways than one.

The three power companies that serve this swatch of southeast Texas estimate that 2.6 million customers lost power due to Ike. Even with 8,000 linemen from all over the country working to restore electricity, it’s going to take a long time to bring us all out of the dark. But my household is one of the lucky ones. A week before Ike struck, we had the foresight and good fortune to buy a generator for our house. As long as we have access to gasoline – which isn’t a sure thing around here – we have something that is the envy of our neighbors: electricity! That puts us on the good side of the Electronic Divide.

In the days since Ike hit, people around here – myself included – have entered various stages of withdrawal from our electronic world. Most people have no access to the news on television, or even the radio. (I see people sit in their cars to listen to the radio from time to time.) We can’t call anyone; the land lines are down and the cell networks are overloaded. Even text messages don’t always go through. Forget about the Internet. Even if we could power our PCs and routers, the services that deliver broadband to our homes are out.

It’s almost sad how dependent we have become on these services and our electronic devices. My teenage daughter is in mourning because she can’t text her friends. My son is suffering cable TV withdrawal. My husband and I can barely cope without Internet access. We have forgotten how to live our lives without these electronic conveniences.

Still, we are better off than others. With the generator, we have basic television, so we know what’s going on in our world. Others around us don’t. Two days after the storm, we invited neighbors over for dinner. They stood mesmerized in front of the TV; it was the first time they had seen images of Ike’s devastation. Last night as I walked my dogs, a neighbor asked when school would resume. She hadn’t gotten the news that school’s out for at least a week. In one instance after another, people are in the dark without their normal channels of information.

Sometimes the situation is so crazy it’s laughable. For example, the government has set up PODs (points of distribution) for critical supplies like food, water and ice. On TV and radio, the announcers say, “See our Web site for a complete list of the PODs in your area.” Just how do they expect 2 million people who have no power or other utilities to visit their Web site?

I’ve heard that our school district is using an automated caller to phone each student’s home with information about when school will resume. I guess I missed that call because my landline is out, my VoIP line is dead, and my cell network is jammed.

I don’t mean to be smug about it, but I did gain access to the Internet for a brief time the other day. I visited a local business office that has a full complement of utilities. I was able to send e-mail to friends and family members to let them know we are OK, even if we are “roughing it.” (I say that with deep guilt, knowing how fortunate we are to have been spared any true hardship from Ike.)

Access to gasoline is another big need in the area. Ironically, many stations have the fuel, but they can’t pump it without electricity. Who would ever think that a bicycle would trump an expensive SUV for getting around town?

A few stores are open, but paying for items can be tricky. Some stores accept only cash because they have no way to process a credit or debit card. Other stores won’t take cash because they fear being robbed; for them, it’s credit or debit only. Of course, ATMs can’t work without electricity, so cash is hard to come by. I’ll be a bit late paying my bills this month because I can’t get to my online bill pay service. Oh, the things we take for granted when the Electronic Divide doesn’t exist.

If there’s good that has come from being so disconnected, it’s that people in the neighborhood are coming out and talking to each other. We might as well; the houses are hot as hell with no air conditioning, there’s no TV to watch or Internet to access, and the BlackBerries are absolutely lifeless. It’s sad to think that, when the power comes on gain, we’ll all go back to our electronic cocoons.

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