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The Truth in Pictures: Disasters in the Digital Age


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Hurricane Irene over the Bahamas.

For two days Hurricane Irene pounded the coast of the Eastern United States. Though she was ultimately downgraded to a tropical storm, the damage from flooding and downed branches left no doubt as to the power she commanded: washed out roads and rail lines, flooded homes, and widespread power failures left millions trying to pick up the pieces.

Not surprisingly, New Yorkers were skeptical of Irene’s impact ahead of her arrival. (Perhaps a hurricane following an earthquake seemed a bit much to believe.) However, repeated warnings from City officials and preemptive planning to minimize potential damage, convinced many to reconsider. Two days before Hurricane Irene was to make landfall in New York, over four million visitors to 311 Online—New York City’s information portal—brought the site down. It seems New Yorkers were finally paying attention.

In an effort to continue to provide New Yorkers with up-to-date information, City agencies turned to digital means. The Office of Emergency Management sent out regular email updates including attachments with emergency preparation and evacuation information. Rachel Sterne, New York City’s Chief Digital Officer, as well as different City agencies began to use Twitter to broadcast emergency information. And Mayor Bloomberg’s press conferences were streamed live. It was a well-coordinated attempt to reach citizens who were plugged in.

But some of the more serious messages about the severity of the storm came in the form of pictures from the MTA’s Flickr stream, documenting first the preparations underway to shut down and protect transportation systems and then the devastation left in Irene’s wake. It’s true after all that a picture is worth a thousand words:

Hurricane Irene preparation: LIRR employees install an Aqua-Barrier to help prevent water from flowing into the LIRR's tunnels to Penn Station.

 

Hurricane Irene prep: Access-a-Ride vehicles preparing to evacuate residents of nursing facility at Peninsula Hospital Center, Beach 50th St and Beach Channel Drive, Queens.

MTA Metro-North Railroad closed Grand Central Terminal as the hurricane approached.

The images present a nice complement to the announcements being made by City officials, giving the public a view of the practical aspects of preparation.  And perhaps for some, seeing the realities of these efforts helped fuel a sense of urgency beyond stocking the liquor cabinet.

Following Irene, given the uneven impact the storm left in its wake, the images reminded demonstrated just what workers were facing as a part of the clean-up efforts:

Floodwaters covered the subway train storage yard at Coney Island.

The Hudson River encroaches on Metro-North Railroad's Hudson Line at Croton-Harmon.

Whether this was a strategic effort on the part of the MTA or a byproduct of their own systematic documentation, these images contributed to the perceptions of City responsiveness to the situation and likely helped craft the public response during and following Irene. Links to individual photos were tweeted from @MTAInsider, and quickly spread on the social media circuit, creating a human link to what is otherwise a largely faceless bureaucratic entity. They create a chain of accountability. As the digital city emerges, efforts like this to connect with the public will prove increasingly important, and represent a growing understanding concerning the requirements for transparency in the digital age.

 

Photo credits: Lead image – NASA | All others – MTAPhoto.

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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