Hurricane Ike Blows in New Approaches to Social Tech

By Kurt Cagle
September 14, 2008 | Comments: 2

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In September 7, 1900, the hurricane blew out of nowhere - while the Florida-based U.S. Weather Bureau had raised the possibility of a large tropical storm hitting somewhere along the western Gulf of Mexico, estimates put the likelihood of the storm hitting Galveston very low. Thus, even when local officials finally did put up hurricane flags, most locals stayed put, as they could see the clear skies and calm conditions

When it hit, the hurricane was a Class 4 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, with sustained winds in excess of 120 miles an hour. This was enough to turn thousands of wooden houses into kindling, and over the course of the day the storm and the 15' surge killed more than 6,000 people, and reduced one of the largest cities in America at the time into a ghost town that took decades to recover from.

Due to a lack of seawall and with the last train to the mainland having left even before the hurricane flags went up, there was nowhere for anyone to go when the storm came ashore. The devastation was nearly complete, but what made the disaster even worse was that few people even knew how badly Galveston had been hit - it took three days to get help and that only because six survivors had taken one of the few remaining intact ships on the island to get word to the nearest government office in Houston. By the time troops were able to arrive a few days after that, hundreds of additional people had died from injuries, disease or starvation.

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One hundred and eight years after that storm, Hurricane Ike made landfall over Galveston and Houston to the northwest. While the winds were not as strong, the eye of the storm had pressures more closely associated with a Class 4 hurricane than a strong Class 2. The island was hit with a storm surge of roughly 13 feet, enough to smash houses, cover roads with debris (including large boats) and leave the downtown area under up to as much as seven feet of water at one point.

While it is likely that Galveston will take years to rebuild, the city was not devastated the way it could have been. The heaviest storm surge (in excess of twenty feet) occurred in a lightly populated area north of the city. The seawall built in the 1930s also served to brunt much of the impact of the surge - which can best be likened to a wall of water some thirty feet thick arriving at nearly 100 miles an hour - dissipating its strength. Bad flooding occurred, and it is likely that most of the area will need to rebuild, but the seawall did its job.

Additionally, if the storm had stayed in the Gulf of Mexico for even another 12-24 hours, it would have reached Class 4 status, and its debatable whether even the seawall would have made that much difference at that point.

Monitoring the Storm: Weather Underground

One of the biggest differences between 1900 and 2008, however, was that this storm was one of the most highly monitored hurricane in history, with a significant amount of that monitoring being done not by weather officials or foolhardy reporters, but due to people on the ground working the Internet.

While most of the Internet weather channels (such as weather.com) provided fairly intensive coverage, the major success story of the hurricane was the emergence of Weather Underground, a commercial weather service that started out as a university project of Jeff Masters and his PhD advisor Perry Samson to provide a menu-driven telnet weather service from the University of Michigan. They took the name as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the 1970s radical terrorist group the Weather Underground, but by 1992 their servers had become one of the most heavily hit on the web, providing weather information for K-12 grade students across the emerging Internet.

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By 1995, Weather Underground was launched as a commercial service independent of the university, though it took nearly ten years for it to reach critical mass. In 2005, Wunderground.com had inked contracts with Associated Press (AP) and had become the weather information provider for Google.

It was in that same year that Wunderground started providing weather blogs, including blogs by Jeff Masters himself as well as by a number of other professional meteorologists, many who work for local or national news stations. This approach to weather is novel, bringing in a very human side to what can often by a blizzard of statistics and acronyms.

Wunderground's coverage of Ike has been both detailed and timely. While most of the news stations were trying to get footage of reporters standing in the wind for their video feeds (something that was nearly impossible at the storm's apex given winds capable of turning a sliver of wood into a lethal projectile) Masters himself was reporting on what was happening at the moment of landfall across radar, integrated kinetic activity maps (produced by NOAA's Hurricane Research Division), water discharge graphs (which showed rivers and bayous literally running backwards as the storm surge hit), and storm surge maps, among many others. Significantly, much of the local video coverage were using maps that came directly from Wunderground on the air.

Perhaps as significant is the running set of comments associated with these posts (the landfall post has garnered more than 1000 comments just a day later). People used this post to describe conditions up to the point where Galveston lost power (about midnight local time on Sept. 12) and to record conditions and post photographs after the storm had moved on.

A typical sample (quoted by Masters directly) ran as follows:

A night on Galveston Island
Wunderground member CycloneBoz rode out Ike in a parking garage in Galveston. Here's his report from this morning:
This is CycloneBoz, live from the southern eyewall of Hurricane Ike.

What a storm! My wind gauge read 110 mph

In the car, I'm being bucked like riding a bronco! Easily, winds now still over 100 mph!

I'm on the 2nd floor of the Hotel Galvez parking garage. I have shot some incredible video. I'm chomping at the bit to edit it...and I think I'm going to have time to do that here...because no one is going to get off this island anytime soon.

The surge was an east to west event at midnight. Now, the surge is a west to east event. Flooding everywhere. Multiple fires! There was even a fire out at sea on one of the piers in front of the garage during the first part of the storm.

Massive destruction. Surprisingly, though, a lot of the houses are keeping their roofs! But the people inside are sure worried!

I yelled across the street during the incredible eye event to a lady whose first floor was flooded. Everyone there was okay, but I could tell she was crying. She was scared to death.

As my car rocks wildly as I sit beneath tons of concrete, I have to admit......I'm a bit on edge myself.

With both RSS feeds and a full selection of XML-based APIs, it's likely that Wunderground will likely end up becoming an important middleman in the dissemination (and community building) of weather.

The Revolution was Vidcast

The quote by CycloneBoz indicates a second aspect of the weather revolution - video coverage of Hurricane Ike was the most extensive of any major storm to date, but unlike the sound-bite hurricane updates that the major networks typically provide, much of the Internet community saw raw video - people with camcorders and digital cameras, search and rescue video fed and re-fed, independent weather junkies such as tornadovideos.com, as well as footage from fixed webcams operating under separate power.

Videocasting a hurricane qualifies as an extreme sport - it requires strength, courage, chutzpa and not a little bit of luck. It's also extremely dangerous - at 120 miles per hour (nearly 200 km per hour) winds can blow poorly made houses apart and explode windows (as the JPMorgan Building in Houston so starkly illustrates), and the aforementioned water surge could pulp a person before they even realized the danger.

Still, such videographers were out in force both during and after the hurricane, capturing not only the fierce winds and rain but also the person dressed as a bear strolling down Galveston beach and one very determined streaker who apparently couldn't pass up the attention to "go live".

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In most cases, videocasting is a two stage process - taking the video, then uploading that video onto a computer for later processing and compression.  However, one of the more intriguing new toys that popped up during the storm was a combination of videocam and satellite link that could be mounted inside a car, used by one of the major networks (Fox, most likely - attribution of video was also made somewhat harder by the sheer diversity of sources and feeds).

As important as getting the video feed data was the dissemination of such data. YouTube was a popular destination for posting such video, not surprisingly - a day and a half after landfall YouTube had nearly 5400 videos posted under the search term "Hurricane Ike", and the number is likely to increase dramatically over the next week, especially as people are able to get access to computers to start posting video taken as the hurricane itself hit.

However, kudos should also be made to a quick-witted web developer (who's asked to remain anonymous) who put together streaming feeds from the four news stations in the Houston/Galveston area. For this writer (and no doubt many others) this "command center" proved useful in keeping up to date on what was happening as the storm hit.

One apparent casualty of the hurricane was a website entitled http://houstonhidefromthewind.org/. The webmaster had managed to put together a brilliant bit of programming that let people click on a given location on a map of Houston and get an estimate about how heavy the winds were at that point and how high they were anticipated to reach. However, the server was hit by the Slash-Dot effect as first the local then the national press picked up news of the site, causing their servers first to slow to a crawl before the power outage that hit Houston likely took the site down for good.

An inadvertent effect of this video coverage is that it has also shown that Hurricane Ike, like many Atlantic hurricanes, was international in scope. It is typical for American coverage of storms to concentrate only upon damage to US cities, but quite a large amount of video is now making its way from Cuba, showing the massive devastation that the storm has caused there as a strong category 3 storm, and raising awareness that, as bad as it was in Galveston, it was worse by an order of magnitude for that island country.

Ongoing

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As with any disaster of this magnitude (with initial estimates of dame beginning to come back at as much as twenty seven billion dollars, making it the third most costly hurricane in US history), the story of Hurricane Ike will likely go on for some time, including the technological part of it.

Many people are now waiting to see the latest Google Earth maps from satellites in order to get a better gauge of how badly damaged Galveston really is, especially as it will likely be several days before any but essential personnel are allowed in or out of the area. The first helicopter fly-overs have been discouraging - miles upon miles of streets underwater, neighborhoods reduced to foundations and debris everywhere.

This is an ongoing disaster, and we will be posting additional information about rescue services, reconnection sites and news as appropriate. 

Kurt Cagle is Online Editor for O'Reilly Media.


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2 Comments

It's surprising that you didn't discuss some of the most interesting social tech that was applied here. The Gustav08 Ning social network (http://hurricanes08.org) and the HurricaneWiki (http://hurricanewiki.org) were community driven efforts of information gathering, geospatial data creation, collaboration, and awareness.

In addition, Twitter and Blogs did a large amount of on-the-ground awareness of power availability, evacuation routes, shelters, and other information useful to both citizens and responders.

The tools are getting better, easier to repurpose, and easier to use for emergent situations.

In the aftermath of the storm, there are probably a million+ folks watching the CNP (http://www.centerpointenergy.com/staticfiles/ike/outages.html) to see when power will return.

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