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The disaster in Houston demonstrates that when it comes to the scarcity of information during natural disasters, government and industry both have taken lessons from recent past storms to heart. I say this without meaning to understate the failures that have occurred during Hurricane Harvey. From overwhelmed 911 call centers to counties where nearly the entire cellular infrastructure failed during the height of the storm, there have been failures, lessons to be learned, and responses to be improved.
But by and large, and especially compared to past storms, communications infrastructure of all sorts has performed well during, and has been a vital tool in responding to, Harvey.
The starting point for this response has been the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Before the storm, the FCC prepositioned engineers and technicians on Houston to assist with maintaining the infrastructure and response coordination. Perhaps more importantly, the FCC activated its Disaster Information Reporting System to collect and share information about infrastructure outages. This information has proved important to the technical community as it works to keep information flowing into and out of Houston. As I have watched the response to the storm on various mailing lists, the FCC’s regular reports have helped direct resources and efforts and allowed stakeholders to coordinate their efforts. This information has also been important to those seeking information in Houston — to know where to obtain information — as well as to people elsewhere.
We have also seen the importance of newer communications platforms in Houston. Social media has been an incredible hub for information. Crucially, and unlike in any past event of comparable magnitude, social media has allowed critical information to flow in many directions. As emergency call centers were overwhelmed, information about how to contact the Coast Guard could be pushed out; as the Coast Guard was unable to reach some individuals, volunteers were able to answer calls for help. This is an unprecedented level of coordination — and it came about organically, a generative result of modern communications technology.