Thankfully, Hurricane Irene turned out to be much weaker than predicted. Despite its relative weakness compared to projections, Irene still wreaked havoc up and down the East Coast, leading to at least 40 deaths, loss of power for 9 million people and billions in damages.
Many of us in North America were transfixed by New York City because of its symbolic importance, its sheer density and the rare occurrence of a hurricane in the city (the last hurricane to threaten New York was in 1985). While watching the events unfold and hearing the stories of what Mayor Bloomberg and his team were doing to prepare for the worst, I couldn’t help but think that there is so much more we could be doing to prepare our cities for extreme storm events.
Within the scientific community there is little debate that climate change will impact the frequency and intensity of storm events. The U.S. Global Change Research Program recently commented: "Based on a range of models, it is likely that future tropical cyclones (typhoons and hurricanes) will become more intense, with larger peak wind speeds and more heavy precipitation associated with ongoing increases of tropical SSTs (sea surface temperatures)."
So if we can expect that U.S. cities like New York will be exposed to more frequent and intense hurricanes in the future, it’s prudent to consider what would it take to make our cities more resilient to these brutal storms. If New York City were the "smartest" city on the planet, how would it prepare for and mitigate the impacts of hurricanes on its population and infrastructure?
Smart Wi-Fi, GPS, and Mobile Technology
What if GPS, Wi-Fi and mobile technology were completely ubiquitous in all parts of the city, including the poorest parts? City administrators could enter in the GPS coordinates of everything from at-risk neighborhoods and rivers to the location of the nearest safe shelters, the nearest transit option to escape the city to higher ground and the nearest available potable water sources and much more. Assuming all citizens had access to GPS-enabled devices, citizens in distress could indicate with a text to 911 that they were in trouble and the GPS coordinates would be instantaneously available to first responders. With some kind of opt-in system, residents could even receive real-time text updates tied to their GPS coordinates.
Stories abound of massive lineups at Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts for people without power and Internet in their homes following Irene. If New York had universal Wi-Fi such as Wi-FiPDX in Portland, Oregon, it would allow evacuees to get the latest information on the storm and to stay connected with local and international family and friends.
On Saturday August 27th, New York City took the unusal step of shutting down its widely used transit system in advance of Irene. The reason they shut the system down the day before the projected touchdown is because it takes at least eight hours for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to end operations. Because the city did not know when wind speeds would exceed the maximum threshold of 40 miles per hour, they had to make the call early.
What if the entire transit system—buses, light rail, metro, and subway—were all connected with real-time digital systems? What if they could be shut down and turned on like we turn on and off our lights? What if, in the event of a major storm, evacuation, or terrorist attack, administrators could instantly re-route all transit and reverse the direction of the metro lines so that they all leave the city? While there are few—if any—examples of transit systems this smart yet, pieces of these solutions already exist.
The Helsinki Journey Planner, for example, has an open data protocol to enable city websites and third party developers to tap into the transit system and provide real-time data on transit schedules. Google Transit offers something similar for more than 450 cities worldwide. The City of Lincoln, Nebraska is seeking to pioneer the use of Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) technology to improve the efficiency of their transit system by providing "real-time position of buses and other transit fleet vehicles by relaying information to a dispatch center."
ConEdison, a major utility in the New York City area, preemptively shut down power to neighborhoods at most risk in advance of Irene. One of the reasons for this was fear that power would go out while someone was in an elevator. Instead of shutting down city blocks due to concerns about power going in and out in a few buildings, smart grids would allow utilities to isolate at-risk buildings and easily shut down and restart power. Smart grids combined with distributed energy could allow for the redistribution of energy to affected buildings. In fact, in a recent post, I discussed how smart grids are able to significantly reduce the amount of power outages from major storm events. And if power does go out, EV vehicles could actually be used to power a home for a few days. Smart grids represent a big economic opportunity as well—they are expected to attract $200 billion in investment between 2008 and 2015, according to Pike Research.
Severe storms are going to become the new normal. Ensuring our cities have ubiquitous Wi-Fi, GPS, smart transit, smart grids will not only prepare them to be more resilient in severe weather events, but will also lead to smart economic development and untold numbers of opportunities for entrepreneurs and established industry.
[Image: Flickr user JonathanPercy]
Boyd Cohen, Ph.D., LEED AP, a climate strategist helping to lead communities, cities and companies on the journey towards the low carbon economy. Dr. Cohen is the co-author of Climate Capitalism: Capitalism in the Age of Climate Change.