Days after Typhoon Haiyan ripped across the eastern Philippines, the most immediate needs for water, medicine, and shelter are beginning hampered by a lack of information.
The scale of the storm and the geography of a nation spread across 7,107 islands makes gauging the magnitude of the disaster difficult until communication is established. And, as in other such disasters, emergency officials need access to important data.
Restoring technology infrastructure has become an essential part of emergency recovery, just as it has gotten more complicated—and disasters seemingly more frequent and destructive.
But avoiding having sometimes-fragile technology go down in the first place takes foresight, says Ben Tartaglia, executive director of the International Disaster Research Association, or IDRA.
“The best way to do it is pre-planning and preparing your infrastructure for recovery,” Tartaglia says.
That doesn’t always happen with IT and communications. A survey by the IDRA found that only one in four telecommunications departments have disaster plans. This despite the fact that a World Bank and U.S. Geological Survey study estimates that $40 billion invested in emergency preparedness would have saved $280 billion during the 1990s, the latest period studied.
So while there’s nothing good in massive natural disasters like the Philippines typhoon, it at least focuses attention on the need to be prepared.
Disaster lessons have often been surprising.
Cellphones, for example, have incontrovertibly become lifelines in disasters, and one of the first things officials need restored. That’s particularly true in places like the Philippines, where there are 114 cell phones per 100 people—a greater density than the U.S. Census Bureau says exists in the United States—according to the consulting firm BuddeComm.
Even in normal times, Filipinos send two billion SMS messages per day, among the most in the world. Meanwhile, only half of Philippines towns and cities even have wired telephone service, and the proportion is declining.
Of course, the fact that cellphones transmit wirelessly gives them built-in resilience. It’s the base stations that are vulnerable in disasters. The towers themselves may be well-engineered, but there is often too little fuel to sustain them, too many people trying to make calls, and towers are often built on unstable structures that collapse.
The 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan immediately disabled 8,000 base stations, but within 24 hours that number had doubled when most of the rest lost power.
After the Haiti earthquake, none of the cellphone towers built on solid ground went down. The ones that did fail were on the roofs of the many buildings that collapsed.
Spikes in demand can do almost as much damage as a natural disaster. After the Japanese tsunami, call volume was 60 times more than normal, and systems crashed.
In the wake of Typhoon Haiyan, cellphone companies are flying in so-called cell sites on wheels, known by the abbreviation COWs and familiar from large events where they’re used to increase calling capacity. Equipped with their own generators, they can restore service in emergencies.
“If you get enough of those connecting to each other, you can re-create the wireless infrastructure,” says Paul Kirvan, a telecommunications consultant. “But it’s going to take hundreds of them to do that. And the generators need fuel, and the supply chain for all of that starts to get extensive.”
Nor is it a permanent solution. But it is made easier by the fact that growing reliance on cellphones has also spurred investment in undersea cables and more redundancy so that service can be routed around switching offices where service has been cut.
These changes “have been made to improve throughput,” Kirvan says. “But it also increases resiliency and survivability.”
More enduring ideas are being tried, too.
The Japanese are building 100 super-strong cell-phone base stations. And GSMA—an international association of mobile operators and related companies—is urging providers to join an international bank of COWs so they can be shared in an emergency.
After callers clogged systems during Hurricane Katrina and the London subway bombings, some cellphone companies created a way for fire, police, and ambulance calls to get the highest priority, and encourage other users to send lower-bandwidth text messages.
There will doubtless be more tests like Typhoon Haiyan. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says the number of natural disasters is likely to increase as a consequence of global warming.
Some projects even seek to use such things as cellphone networks to help predict the worst. One network signed a deal with its national weather bureau to locate monitoring instruments at cell-phone towers.
The country where this happened? The Philippines.