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Technological wonders in the midst of Irene

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One of the enduring images I carry from Fort Lauderdale in the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma is of a reporter opening the trunk of his car outside the Bahia Mar Hotel and revealing a traditional 20th century office phone, just waiting for an energized outlet and an intact landline to do its thing. Talk about wishful thinking.

Three of us were in Lauderdale to report on the Herculean efforts of Show Management to clean up and rebuild a storm-blasted infrastructure in record time so that one of the largest boat shows in the world could take place. It did. I’m sure the producers of the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show learned a lot; I know we did.

For us at Trade Only, it was a good lesson in getting a story out when all around you technology is going haywire – failing, crashing, working one minute, going dark the next. We learned to cobble things together, and we learned the value of having backup plans, both B and C.

And I don’t think I’ll ever forget the image of that lonely phone in the trunk of a car.

Our communications world in 2005 was on the verge of one of those technology-inspired paradigm shifts, even if we didn’t know it at the time. Welcome to another disrupted technology, the smart phone and a host of related mobile devices.

Fast-forward to Hurricane Irene, where we can now add to the sage list of hurricane prep items and activities (batteries, water, transistor radios and the like) making sure your cell phone or other portable, battery-powered communication devices are fully charged. And, if possible, having a way to keep them topped off (how many folks who lost electricity ran their cars at idle right after Irene exited in order to charge their phones?).

When I woke Sunday morning in southeastern Connecticut with Irene about to roll over Long Island and headed our way, I was able to use my iPhone to connect to the National Hurricane Center, The Weather Channel and the New York Times. We had a radio on hand just in case, but the timeliness, quality and amount of information available via a cellular connection to the Web dwarfed all else.

“Before the iPhone, cyberspace was something you went to your desk to visit,” Paul Saffo, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and veteran Apple observer, told the New York Times in a story that ran Aug. 27, the day Irene barreled across the Outer Banks. “Now cyberspace is something you carry in your pocket.”

Of course, if a cell network fails we’d be back to transistor radios and smoke signals, but the reports I read immediately after the storm suggested that wireless phone networks fared well during Irene despite widespread power outages.

The smart phone allowed me to stay in touch with family members, riding out the storm in evacuation areas farther east as well as keeping in contact with staff members both in state and in Florida through e-mail, voice and text messages. And as the dust settled this week the phone also enabled me to be in contact with a small network of reporters and editors so that they could continue to communicate and work, even though landlines and power were still down.

The goal we set in place last week was to publish a daily electronic newsletter throughout Irene even if we lost power at the home office in Connecticut. We learned from Wilma and the FLIBS experience that the show must go on, especially when your business is providing information.

Here’s a paradox: Even though most of us at Soundings were physically along the path of Irene, it was far more efficient and effective for the hurricane reporting to be done by senior reporter Chris Landry, who is based in Sarasota, Fla. Not only does Chris know these waters - he grew up in Rhode Island and Massachusetts and worked in Connecticut - but he also had uninterrupted Web, e-mail and phone service throughout the storm and its aftermath.

He was able to interview tow and salvage operators, and marina owners from North Carolina to Massachusetts. And he was able to maintain a sharp, unerring focus on hurricane reporting while we in the impact zone spread our attention between covering the story and battening the hatches and making sure our families were safe.

As a result, as Irene churned her way up the Atlantic seaboard, Chris was able to report and write daily stories, which we in Connecticut then edited, assembled and sent out to tens of thousands of readers of our Soundings Dispatches e-newsletter. That included real-time reports on Saturday and Sunday, covering the period from the storm’s landfall on the Outer Banks to its exit from northern New England, as well as the immediate aftermath on Monday.

We accomplished it through technology, communication, planning – and some good old-fashioned luck. Two editors in Connecticut had power in their homes, even though the main office in Essex and the rest of the editorial staff in the state were in the dark; that good fortune allowed associate editor Jack Atzinger to edit the stories filed from Florida by Chris and Trade Only Associate Editor Beth Rosenberg. And it also enabled copy editor Mike Trocchi to assemble and distribute both our Dispatches and Trade Only Today e-newsletters, even though the main office and many of us remain without power today.

When I started in this business I’d race from covering some sort of town meeting to a little coffee shop down the road, where I’d scribble out the story longhand and dictate it over a pay phone to the main hive for the morning paper. This blog was written on a laptop in Connecticut and dictated to Beth Rosenberg in Florida, who e-mailed it back to an editor in Connecticut who assembled today’s e-newsletter.

And that’s still Plan A.

We had Plan B, but as the old saw goes, “Sometimes I’d rather be lucky than good.”



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