May 31st in Oklahoma City – Friday Night in the Big Town

As many of you know now as of the last update to the blog, my wife and I are in OKC. Today, I’m going to do something that I feel is important: we’re going to examine the process of a natural disaster event and visit any lessons that can be learned from them for the future in regard to our approaches to communications.

Before starting, I’d just like to say something very brief. The L-rd is good, and the L-rd is merciful. I am safe and alive today only by His grace and protection. He was merciful even in my stupidity, and still chose to grant me wisdom from the events. You will better understand why I say this as I continue on.

El Reno F5 tornadoTo best frame this post, I need to start with a story. This is the recount of Irving P. Daley’s life the afternoon and evening of May 31st, 2013. As a frame of reference, we live north of I-40 and west of I-35 in the OKC metroplex.

Approximately 1600 hours CDT (4:00 pm): Message from my wife asking if I was keeping an eye on the weather. I was, things were still looking pretty clear, but I felt an urge to load my BOB in the car and corral the cat. After the previous week? My nerves, like many other Oklahomans, were a little raw and skittish.

Approx. 1645: Storms started to blossom on the radar. I was getting itchy.

1719 hrs: Nothing truly major has formed near El Reno yet, indicating what was to come. I send the following SMS to my wife, who’s at work: “Car is loaded. Just me and cat. Computers off. Switching to cellphone only contact.” Twelve minutes later, I felt the urge to leave towards my wife’s work and head South. This was not my listening to the talking heads, either… I felt pulled South is the best I can describe the feeling.

Approx. 1800: After getting gas and as I arrive at my wife’s work to get her car to a sheltered place, early reports of the storm outside El Reno start to come in on the radio (listening to Gary England). Tell my wife I love her and begin driving with the cat South.

Approx. 1815: I’m on I-44 westbound. The sky is getting darker to the west and north. Reports come in that the storm has dropped a massive tornado and a warning is issued for a tracking path of the storm that our house is in the middle of in 30 minutes. Data services with my phone are already spotty and unreliable, I can no longer load up the ultra-light page of Weather Underground Mobile.

Approx 1840: I pass the I-240 exchange heading SW on I-44 towards Newcastle. Traffic grinds to a halt on the interstate, two days later I find out why beyond just weather and rush-hour gridlock. Over my right shoulder the sky looks like those photos of Black Sunday. I exit at SW119th Street and head east towards Moore.

Approx 1900: I’m Southbound on S May Ave., heading west again on SW 149th St. I’ve past through the May 20th path. It is at this point that I learn that the storms have taken a turn South and are heading towards Moore/Norman again after ripping through Mustang.

Approx 1915: I’m caught in street gridlock in the rural parts west of Moore. I ride out the storm under a tree at the intersection of SW 156th St. and S. Meridian, not by choice but by boxing in from traffic and not desiring to just abandon my car and block roads. Lots of straight line winds and a little bit of hail. Only knew the storm was supposedly heading my way. Voice service on the phone failed. SMS was spotty. I prayed a lot.

Approx 2000: The storm wains a bit, and I feel compelled to head back home. The next hour and a half is a drive home via flooded country roads and through parts of the path. Lots of damage, downed lines, abandoned flooded cars. The cat was chill.

Approx 2115: I arrive home, tired, exhausted, and feeling a bit foolish.

The postmortem of this adventure? In hindsight, I was an idiot for venturing out… but many valuable lessons and observations were made that I feel were very necessary to the occasion and built upon observations from May 19th and 20th, and will be the basis of the remainder of this post. By leaving the house, I was closer to the storm than I would have if I’d stayed put. I also learned that I’m just going to the synagogue in the future for shelter. No questions. Also, my apologies for making the recount relatively sterile. It’s the journal of a dummy in a storm, not some harrowing tale deserving pity or awe. This is more of an intellectual exercise, after all.

Anyway, now that you’re aware of my escapades on last Friday… we should get to the meat of this post. I’ll start with a bullet list:

  • The cellular phone infrastructure in this nation quite simply is insufficient to handle emergency service volumes.
  • The POTS wired phone infrastructure is equally insufficient to handle emergency service volumes.
  • The first thing to fail on wireless networks is data, second is voice, third and final is SMS.
  • Because of point three, VoIP and any other data-centric communications pathways with your cellphone service have no place in these situations. If you go with a homebrew solution with a traditional MVNO, you’ll be fine as you have fallbacks. If you use something like Republic Wireless or try to only use Google Voice with a data plan for urgent/emergency communications? You’re screwed.
  • Again, because of point three, LEARN HOW TO READ A PAPER MAP and LEARN HOW TO NAVIGATE YOUR CITY. Data dependent GPS will strand you in a bad spot, and if you’re dealing with wicked weather, any GPS (including offline models) will fail you.
  • We’re a wired, communicating society. I know during crisis, people want to make sure you’re safe. Use traditional SMS, and STAY OFF THE VOICE AND DATA SERVICES.
  • When you think you need it most, you will lose network-based two-way communications. If you need information, stay off the wireless data and listen to terrestrial FM radio.
  • Because of point seven, if you’re on the road a lot and want true emergency communications devices… don’t count on a cellphone. Buy a CB radio and learn how to use it politely and effectively.
  • Smartphone battery life stinks, and they’re more likely to make you one of the bozos who help flood cell towers in crisis situations. Use a feature phone, your battery is less likely to fail you in the middle of and aftermath to a crisis, and they’ll keep you from doing stupid things in an emergency like not PAYING ATTENTION TO YOUR SURROUNDINGS.
  • In the aftermath of a destructive emergency, data services (including your ISP) will most likely be restored after voice. Phone numbers make for a good means to communicate, Facebook and email does not.
  • Try not to rely on batteries for communications if you can help it, otherwise, a crank operated charger will be worth its weight in gold when you need electricity.

I advocate minimal cellphone usage already, and focusing on primarily using it as a high priority to emergency communicator for when people are out of a house. This experience just drives even stronger spikes into the railroad tracks I’ve been laying. If you can justify spending money on one at all, be smart about it. You can easily be frugal, but don’t be cheap. Make sure you’re set up to do core services, and have enough credits to cover a small burst of heavy communication. Further, it emphasizes how important it is under real SHTF scenarios to know how to function without your tiny little pocket computer/communicator.

Here’s why I’ve made these observations, a bit of a dissection on what went wrong, and how we might be better prepared in the future (if everyone were to magically read this post and insta-agree with me – ha!).

First, I kept my phone usage on the road to a minimum throughout the evening, but I lost track of how many other drivers I saw on the phone or had streaming video of the coverage being watched from the big three networks. This accounts for a majority of the observational points. It also leads to one of my biggest beefs coming out of this situation. Communications networks are already prone to overloading during emergency situations, it’s a fact of life. People are going to argue that having streaming video footage of coverage from a network streamed to your smartphone from a sweaty dude wearing a red bedazzled tie shouting for people to evacuate in front of pixelated and grainy shots of clouds and roads and equally pixelated smears of color help save people’s lives. No offense, but I humbly request that you take that idea and politely shove it up your wazoo. Does information matter? Absolutely. But there’s nothing to be gained watching streaming video of a natural disaster while it’s happening around you. Terrestrial radio is your friend! Real maps and accurate location reports can save lives! TURN OFF YOUR FOOL STREAMING VIDEO APPS ON YOUR CELLPHONES IN AN EMERGENCY!

This is where I’m going to get hypercritical, not just of the local media markets, but any media market that tries to peddle apocalyptic weather streaming video apps for smartphones: DON’T DO IT! IF YOU DO, YOU ARE DIRECTLY RESPONSIBLE FOR AIDING IN DISRUPTING AND TAKING DOWN THE CELLULAR PHONE INFRASTRUCTURE THAT MUCH EARLIER AND AT THE PEAK OF THE DISASTER ITSELF! If you insist on doing anything remotely like that anyway, at most stream only audio, push text notifications of the path, and only the occasional lower-resolution still image of a RADAR map if necessary and an encouragement to utilize and rely on traditional radio broadcasts or television for the primary source of information. This approach to information dissemination is highly irresponsible, and doesn’t add any significant value to the user other than fear and instant gratification. The infrastructure is fragile enough already during an emergency, don’t make it worse by exploiting people’s attachment to cellphones! Do you see that, KFOR, KOCO and KWTV?

Second, when I ground to a standstill at several times, people were panicked, scared, and attached to their phones like some magical talisman both frightening them and warding that fear off all at once. At one point, I remember seeing a young woman running towards a house trying to take shelter sobbing to her father. I tried to calm her, but it didn’t help much. That local family’s shelter was full and she ran off to hide in an in-ground livestock shelter instead, still clinging to her phone out in the rain. This is not healthy or normal behavior. Technology is a tool, a very functional and vital tool in some instances, but not in the way people are treating them during these disasters. During emergency situations, the more complex the technology, the more likely it is to fail you when you need it most. This is why it’s so important to learn how to operate without a cellphone. We never used to need GPS units to navigate, or have to talk with someone all the time in the past… what’s changed? Communications are important, but in times of crisis, we need to be more willing to not let ourselves be the primary protagonist in our daily life’s story. Learn to yield the most bandwidth heavy communications to the real heroes and first responders. If you need to tell someone you’re okay, do it with a text.

Third observation off the experience is as follows: if you absolutely, positively need to have reliable communications in a crisis, you’re better served with an independent peer-to-peer model, not one built off centralized towers. This experience has left me missing the CB radio I forgot to pull from a car I sold 12 years ago, and I’m seriously looking into finally starting down the road of studying for a Technician Class Amateur Radio license from the FCC, and then pursuing on towards my General Class license. Why? Because if I’m going to be more serious about playing a larger role in emergency response communications and assisting with communications infrastructural rebuilding after natural disasters moving forward, I should start getting my hands dirty with the technology that counts and can be the most valuable in the earliest stages of response when every other path of communication, wired or wireless has failed.

Fourth and final observation? In the aftermath of destruction, data communications will almost always be the last back up. For non-radio civilian communications, it’s important to have traditional telephone service… and by traditional, I mean copper landline or cell phone. The key importance is that you’re directly tied into the POTS network, and not dependent upon a data bridge to communicate in the first few hours after. Data’s the first to go, and the last back up. Our internet was out for several hours after the storms and during the initial wave of flooding. Cellphone voice and SMS services were reasonably okay. It’s important to know phone numbers if you want to let people know you’re safe. Interestingly, at least on the T-Mobile network, data services on our phones were roughly restored at the same time as our cable internet service. This may be an isolated incident, but it was an interesting observation anyway. As a corollary, it highlights how worthless battery hungry smartphones are during these situations. I saw a number of people lose their battery charge not long after the crisis, and have to borrow other people’s phones. So not only does the high speed data support crash the networks faster, it also drains the battery quicker, and the device’s primary function of data usage will be the last to be restored. If I needed it, my selection of Nokia C3-00 was a choice decision as it hadn’t been charged in two days, it got its heaviest workout that afternoon in the time I owned it (though still not much), and yet I still had three out of four battery bars left. Mark another win for the lower frills feature phone! (Yeah, it’s Symbian S40, but it’s considered in the same camp as J2ME and BREW phones these days.)

The experience has truly taught me that communications leading up to, during and after these things are critical, but we need to take a step back and re-evaluate how we’re going about doing these fundamental things on a general level. The progress and march of technology is fine and it’s useful in so many ways, but sometimes newer isn’t always better. My most useful and best information source during this entire series of events was the FM radio and a paper map. High tech has its place in these response situations, and after having a very fruitful conversation with a certain gentleman in Ireland this afternoon, I’m looking forward to new and creative outlets towards potentially deploying these technologies in the coming months and years… but lower tech has its place, too, and learning to function without it not only saves you money, but makes you more self-sufficient. It’s one of the central messages I’ve made with this blog and the Superguide. If you take anything away from this post, learn from both my mistakes and successes. Understand the weak points of this stuff and design around it. Share the insight… the knowledge may pay off in spades.

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