Marc Hedlund's Blog

Geeky Notes on Evacuating Manhattan

I live in lower Manhattan, so since Thursday I’ve been consumed with Hurricane Irene and what the best way to deal with it might be. A lot has already been written on this, so I’m going to confine my thoughts to the geek’s-eye view of the weekend.

  • The single most important tool that helped New Yorkers make plans this weekend was the evacuation zone map and online map search tool, posted by the Mayor’s office on Thursday. This bucketed all of New York City into four regions: Zones A, B, and C, and “No Zone” areas that were unlikely to have severe effects. I’d love to see the NY Times or someone assess the map’s eventual accuracy, but in a sense it doesn’t matter, since I fully believe it was the best information available at the time. Knowing your Zone meant you had a sense of direction. Zone A was under a mandatory evacuation order. I live in Zone B, but because I live in a basement apartment near a river, I made the decision to evacuate to a No Zone area (my friend Sarah’s apartment in Brooklyn). The New York City Mayor’s office and OEM deserve HUGE thanks for making this information available as early and as clearly as they did. Other city governments should use this as a model in similar situations. Maps save lives.
  • For me, the second most important tool was Twitter. Kathryn Yu noted that Twitter makes it easy to have tweets for particular accounts sent to your phone as SMS messages, and setting that up for @NYCMayorsOffice meant I could immediately have the most critical information we needed, possibly even if power, internet, and cell services all went down (since SMS tends to be more hardy than any of those). Twitter posts quickly spread information and reacted against false information. I kept my family and friends informed about what was going on by telling them to follow me on Twitter. I got local reports from people who had stayed near the area I’d evacuated, which helped me be less stressed out about the state of my apartment. This sounds like an ad for Twitter, and I do have friends who work there, but I can say without bias that Twitter was invaluable.
  • While it is a UI and community management disaster area, Wunderground, the weather geek’s site, provided a lot of information and analysis that an overconfident “if I just have the right data” geek (ahem) could use to make decisions about the weather forecasts. In case this isn’t already obvious, journalism as an industry does not provide useful planning information about impending disasters. It’s a short distance from “if it bleeds, it leads” to the conclusion that fear sells papers and boosts ratings, and every professional journalistic source I tried to use either overhyped or reacted against overhyping, both of which are useless. Wunderground isn’t in that industry and isn’t reacting against it (they certainly make fun of The Weather Channel and CNN coverage, but as outsiders, and choose their own path instead). The site was basically a constant stream of comment posts from all kinds of sources – everyone from scientists to victims of the storm to straight-up internet trolls. In my experience it most closely resembled a stock discussion forum, with “barometric pressure” substituting for “P/E ratio” and so on. But, I’m used to that kind of community, it was easy for me to spot the trolls (I think), and the people who got a lot of positive feedback on their comments often turned out to be right. Wunderground did a good job of both raising concerns early, and then reasonably tempering concerns as the storm progressed; professional journalism, as an industry generalization, did exactly the opposite.
  • Because we had enough warning of what might come, Amazon was useful. While UPS made yeoman efforts to be useful too, for me they weren’t, while for others they got the job done. As news about Irene started to build, I took out my emergency kit and go bag and assessed what was missing; early Thursday I placed an overnight order to fill the gaps. Amazon shipped all but one of the items on time, but unfortunately UPS delivered them late at night on Friday, after I’d already evacuated. (I’m impressed they got the package to me at all, though, considering what was going on.) Mike O’Dea, on the other hand, ordered a portable generator and a bunch of MREs via Amazon Prime, and got them in time on Friday. If you have enough warning and can wait out a late delivery, a well-timed Amazon order can route around local supply shortages, make your life a lot easier, and make you a lot safer. (Other people reported that Fresh Direct, a local grocery delivery service, had helped them get stocked up with water and non-perishable food.)
  • One thing I bought was this mobile device battery charger. As it turned out I didn’t have a need to test it, but if the power had gone out for us as it did for so many people, it could have helped a lot. I also bought this hand-crank and solar-powered radio/flashlight/cell phone charger. Since I’m a big believer that having good information is the best way to stay safe (see above), I wanted to keep SMS and radio information flowing indefinitely. A hand-crank radio is probably your best bet for that in an extended emergency.
  • If you’re building an emergency kit, I highly recommend for general information and product reviews. The author is a pilot and some of his recommendations are more suited towards wilderness survival, but he also covers preparation for urban emergencies well.
  • Being cooped up all weekend with the windows rattling is pretty stressful. Entertainment is essential for stress relief. Since New York is a city of high-functioning alcoholics, nearly everyone local I follow was tweeting pictures of their preferred cocktails (Hurricanes and Dark & Stormys included, of course), and Sarah and I had a bourbon tasting. We later redesigned her blog – entertainment that would have ended quickly if power, internet, or our tolerance for TypePad and TypeKit’s dashboards had given out. The best source of entertainment by far was Stellar, which served as a highly-efficient collector of the best Irene jokes out there. Check out my Stellar feed from this weekend for a sampling (I have a few invites if you want to join).

Between the information provided by the Mayor’s office, speculation from Wunderground, and a bunch of news on Twitter, I made a decision to leave about a day before many other people had made a call either way. As a result I was at a grocery store by 7am on Friday, and got to choose whatever supplies I needed while the place was empty; many others faced empty shelves and long lines. I also had time to wrap many of our valuables in plastic and place them at the highest elevation in the apartment, and hopped on a half-full subway train Friday evening and left Manhattan. If you’re a data-driven geek, use the list above and make preparations to leave fast, and you’ll be better off than otherwise. Big crowds trying to all do the same thing at once are a huge problem in disasters; avoid those if you can.

In this case I was pretty well-prepared and got off without having any of my preparations tested at all (and I’ll happily forego A/B testing on this, please); in another case the time I gained might have made a difference for much more than just my comfort on the subway. I’m hugely thankful for all the great tools and help we had. Hopefully this list will help others make preparations in the future.