Living in Florida is usually wonderful - but the price is the
occasional hurricane. In recent years make that frequent hurricanes.
One of the most commonly visited web page in our household shows
National Hurricane Center's 3 day "cone" -
projected path updated 4 times a day of every major tropical storm
brewing . The technology that goes in to this simple looking diagram is
amazingly complex, as I describe below.
While Florida may seem a magnet for hurricanes, they are a global phenomenon (called typhoons and cyclones elsewhere). The wind, rain and tornadoes they bring are deadly and they are costly. Cat-5, a term most technology geeks relate to, is disaster to a meteorologist. While we cannot begin to offset these natural monsters (National Geographic's August issue has a feature story on hurricanes), technology is helping track them, telling us when to board up or evacuate and then recover from their damage.
Weather Satellites, Doppler Radar, recon planes (the "Hurricane Hunters") and dropsondes all feed raw data on hurricanes. I hate flying through normal turbulence - I cannot begin to imagine what the recon aircraft go through especially as they approach the "eyewall". It has been described as "riding in a big semi going 90 miles an hour down a windy, bumpy dirt road in the desert at night, with the headlights turned off". God bless these brave souls. Credit also to the humble dropsonde whose only purpose in its short life is to parachute its way through these storms and transmit temperature, pressure, moisture and other data. This raw data about the hurricane feeds supercomputers which work the tracking models. That is a plural. There are statistical, baroclinic and other models, sometimes contradictory on where the hurricane will likely make landfall. The National Weather Service computers can process 1.3 trillion calculations per second - and still struggle to make accurate forecasts. But they keep getting better each year.
Closer to where a hurricane makes landfall, local authorities use visualization and GIS technology to decide on evacuations and other responses. Local TV and radio stations are increasingly equipped with their own Doppler, PDAs, weather vans and other technology to allow their reporters and weather staff to provide localized alerts and information. The national traffic grid - affected by weather even in normal times - gears in to major action ( if you fly often see this fascinating report on weather impact on air travel space management). Airlines use their own technologies to re-route equipment, re-book passengers, communicate to passengers via their web sites, email, automated voice messages, alerts to cell phones and PDAs.
Once a hurricane strikes, FEMA kicks in to action using NEMIS to track claims and disbursements and other emergency information. Power outages are a common problem with hurricanes. Utilities are using technologies to detect where problems in their grid lie, and also to better communicate with uncomfortable customers without electricity. Insurance companies trying to expedite disaster claims have equipped their catastrophe field adjuster with a laptop computer with wireless modem cards, digital camera to take and transmit pictures to the electronic files; and cell phones to make appointments and transmit claims data. Remember, many of them are working in places with no power.
Which brings us to disaster recovery and business continuity plans the average CIO puts in place. But it is better to plan for the extraordinary as Jim Desjarlais, IT Manager at Lee County found out last year with Hurricane Charley.
Then there is technology to cope with household emergencies. We lost power for a couple of days during each hurricane last year. The kids borrowed my laptop and used it as a DVD player and used my APC DC to AC inverter to power the battery in the air-conditioned theater and hotel room our van got converted into . Technology to the rescue!
Talking about kids, they always want to know why hurricanes are named Ivan or Katrina. If you are curious about whether there is an order to male, female, Latin, Polynesian or other names check this out. You will notice that the 12th hurricane in 2009 in the Atlantic zone will be named Larry. If it comes anywhere near land SAP, IBM and Microsoft customers better have elaborate disaster recovery plans in place!
Author's Note: I started writing the
blog on Thursday when Katrina was a Category 1 Hurricane targeting
Florida. This evening it has grown to a Category 5 threatening New
Orleans. The tracking technologies have worked and millions have been
evacuated. However, this is only our 4th Cat-5 hurricane this century
and New Orleans is already under sea level and has some very old
structures. Also a number of oil rigs and refineries in that area may
be threatened. Hopefully the Saints are watching over New Orleans and
the Gulf Coast tonight. Tomorrow on technology will again help in the
recovery. Link here to CNN's Miles O'Brien's blog as he battens the hatches in Louisiana.
Another Note: BusinessWeek has a nice article in its Jan 16, 2006 issue about technologies used to forecast hurricanes - especially longer term forecasts.