Hurricane Ike and the Electronic Divide

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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.

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