Monday, November 2, 2015

How do you Weather the Storm?

By Kathryn Ryan M, Syed Asad Raza and Hakan Yerlikaya

In preparation for our class discussion of the Commonwealth Edison Case and the role of social media during natural disasters, please consider your own experience with storms and other natural disasters. Have you ever lost power as a result of a storm? Have you ever been stuck in your home or another shelter? If so, what was the most important tool you had or wished you had access to?
For an increasing number of people, the answer to the last question is a fully-charged Smartphone. Because cellular phones operate on cellular signals coming from cell towers rather than the electrical grid, cellphone signals are not usually interrupted during storms. As a result residents of areas affected by storm activity usually will still have access to a cellular signal even if they lose electricity, and therefore, access to radios, most landlines and television, home internet routers, desktop computers, and other media and communication platforms.

Smartphones provide an opportunity for people who once lost communication channels during power outages to remain connected to their families, communities, utilities, and the government. Consider the situation in New Orleans immediately before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina, which made landfall in Louisiana on August 29, 2005. During the hours before the storm, New Orleans issued an evacuation order. However, many residents chose not to heed the evacuation order and were forced to wait out the storm in their own homes and in temporary shelters like the Superdome. After the storm, hundreds of residents were trapped in their attics and the roofs of their homes as a result of the storm surge flooding, waiting to be rescued by first responders. In 2005, Twitter was not yet released and most Americans did not have access to social media platforms. For many, cellphones remained a luxury. Many people lost their lives waiting for help, with no access to communication tools.

Compare the situation during and after Hurricane Katrina with the situation during and after more recent storms like Hurricane Sandy or the 2011 storms that caused the Commonwealth Edison outages. The Commonwealth Edison case shows how a private utility could learn from past experiences and use the new wave of online social media users to improve its ability to respond for the needs of its thousands of customers in the region. The Commonwealth Edison utility learned from its mistakes during the July 2011 storm and prepared a social media plan shortly after the storm in order to respond to the concerns of its customers who wanted to be informed about how long they would need to wait before getting power back online. It is important to note the Commonwealth Edison utility is a private utility. This may have affected the speed of the company’s implementation of a social media plan, as well as its willingness to take risks that more bureaucratic public utilities may be less willing to take.

In preparation for today’s class, please consider how the proliferation of social media has changed how you prepare for storms. Please also consider the agencies and companies that are responsible for preparing for and responding to storms and other natural disasters in your community. Is your power utility private or public? How do you view the response of government agencies compared to private entities? Where does the Commonwealth Edison case fall in your assessment?

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