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The Days, Years After: Recovering from Bigger, Badder Disasters

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Link suite overview: on recovering from disasters; the lessons of Irene, Joplin, Fukushima, Pakistan flood, Queensland flood, Christchurch quakes, Haiti quakes, Katrina; collateral damage and eco-smart design as insurance

Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

It has been a banner year for disasters in the US with  a record-breaking 10 “billion-dollar-plus” knock-out punches, and still four months to go. So far: massive blizzards, epic floods, murderous tornadoes and one staggeringly large, coast-shredding hurricane. As  a grace note, an earthquake on an previously unknown fault in Virginia put cracks in the Washington monument—a wound as disturbing symbolically as structurally.

Globally, the news is no less jaw-dropping: Floods stretching to the horizon in Australia and Pakistan. Two devastating earthquakes each for New Zealand and Haiti. And a trifecta of tragedy in Japan where an earthquake triggered a tsunami that drowned a nuclear plant.

Droughts—comparatively stealthy as disasters go—only grab headlines when people start keeling over from starvation by the tens of thousands (Somalia), or crop losses are so large, sticker shock sets in at the grocery store, while global food security—which means global security—becomes notably less secure (Russia, US).

The only bright spot in this litany of gloomy news is that communication during and about disasters has improved markedly.  As Hurricane Irene buzz-sawed its way up the eastern seaboard, The Weather Channel went into overdrive, leading a media mob—both mainstream and “citizen”—reporting, tweeting, crowdmapping, photographing, making videos, texting donations, aggregating, blogging, facebooking, and sharing every last little nugget of awful news.

It made a difference. People got out of harm’s way. Although the death toll has now climbed into mid-forties, with likely a few thousand more injured, an estimated 65 million people felt some part of Irene’s fury. Most stayed safe, which is remarkable.

Yet for all the technical brilliance that made it possible to track a weather blip off the coast of Africa to its lethal landfall an ocean away, or to plan mass evacuations, share safety tips and keep track of loved ones, there was no stopping Irene. Financial losses may have been less than expected—mostly because property values are lower in Vermont than in New York City—but they are enormous and devastating. Homes have been torn apart, lives turned upside down.

The collateral damage has yet to be tallied from lost incomes, delayed school starts, exposure to toxic mold, toxic water, mosquito-borne illnesses and weakened infrastructure.

It becomes a vicious circle: Until businesses affected by the storm are up and running again, tax revenues will decline, making it that much more difficult to pay for repairs or proactive maintenance. In Japan and New Zealand, bonds and special taxes are now on the table to cope with recovery costs estimated in the tens of billions of dollars.

In fact, the high cost of these mega-disasters—often quoted a percentage of a country’s GDP—can itself become a cost. Insurance companies, faced with catastrophic losses, are hiking rates and cutting coverage. But the more businesses and home-owners are forced to spend on insurance and out-of-pocket expenses, the less money they have to expand businesses or make purchases.

There are also more people than ever in harm’s way. Much of the development in Queensland, Australia over the last 30 years, for example, was on a floodplain.

Although specific storms are difficult to link directly to climate change, our warmer world holds more moisture in its atmosphere than it did even just a few decades ago. That means there is more rain to to be rained, and more energy to interact and magnify well-known weather drivers such as El Nino / La Nina.

Whether or not this is the “new normal” remains to be seen. It certainly seems to be the “more frequent.”

IN RECOVERY

“The Days, Years After,” a new link suite story on the TrackerNews aggregator, looks at a half dozen disasters from the last few years, focusing on recovery efforts. Each disaster is tragic in its own way, but patterns emerge.

  • Political gridlock (Japan) can be just as devastating as corruption (Haiti) in slowing recovery
  • Good communications networks make a tangible difference (Joplin, New York)

On a more encouraging note, all sorts of new and better tools for  mapping, clean-up, construction and communication have emerged since Hurricane Katrina, all made accessible, and some made possible, by the web.

Many of the technologies are eco-smart, which turns out to be a good disaster defense strategy as well.

Imagine, for example, the difference it would have made if the electric grid in the Northeast had been based on a distributed power paradigm. Rather than large central power plants generating electricity transported over long distances on vulnerable wires, individual buildings and neighborhoods would generate their own, preferably green, power. Batteries capable of storing enough energy from solar panels and wind-turbines to power as many as 2,000 homes would be tied into local grid, which could, in turn, could be tied into a larger grid. A hurricane would still knock lights out, but not to millions of people.

Clean, green energy independence means energy insurance, too.

Additional highlights of the link suite include:

… and much more (all links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database)

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Good, Evil, Digital: The Promise and Peril of Life in the Cyber Lane (link suite overview)

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TrackerNews link suite on internet freedom, internet security and the power of digital networks. Links become part of the TrackerNews searchable database.

“Good, Evil, Digital” is one of the largest link-suite “stories” we have ever featured on the aggregator, with more than four dozen links to articles, books, videos, websites and software tools. It has also been one of the most fascinating to research and challenging to assemble.

Internet freedom and internet security are two sides to the same coin:

Likewise, determining who’s a hero and who’s a villain isn’t always so clear cut. When ad hoc vigilante “hackivists” under the theatrically ominous moniker “Anonymous” go after the inarguably awful Iranian government, it’s Robin Hood in bits and bytes. It is a tougher call for “Operation: Titstorm,” which targeted the Australian government over censorship issues, using porn as the standard bearer for free speech.

The curious case of Aaron Barr, a software security expert singled out for attack, crosses the line straight to creepy. Barr, who had boasted of being able to strip the hacktivists of their most precious asset—anonymity—found himself on the wrong end of some sharply aimed code. The Anonymous crew tunneled through tens of thousands of Barr’s emails, making them public, along with his cell number, address and social security number. Found among the email booty, a possible smoking gun, implicating not one, not two, but three security firms proposing a variety of dirty tricks—including cyber attacks—on behalf of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Bank of America.

In the midst of all this cyber-sniping, some are calling for a “Geneva Convention” to outline the rules of cyberwarfare, spare “civilian targets” and inject some ethics into battle.  Others say the “war” analogy doesn’t really work when dealing with an enemy can’t be seen or even tracked all that easily. The “Stuxnet” worm that attacked Iranian nuclear facilities, for example, was designed to cover the evidence of its own existence. It went about wrecking gyroscopes with commands to speed up and slow down while simultaneously generating data reporting that everything was operating as it should.

Meanwhile, the award for innovation in mobile data distribution goes to the Jihadists, for whom Bluetooth has become a “…a distribution mechanism of choice. ” From crunching video files to developing special encryption-friendly operating systems, they’ve got it down.

Taking the opposite tack, Egyptian-Googler-turned-freedom-fighter Wael Ghonim and a network-savvy generation placed their bets on openness, struggling to keep a nascent revolution alive through posts on Facebook and Twitter. Throughout the 18 days of unprecedented protest, the government tried everything it could to throttle communication, including shutting down the country’s internet and cell phone services.

Despite the limits, the “Facebook revolution” prevailed, not only sweeping a despot from office, but also shredding in the process Malcolm Gladwell’s thesis on activism and the “strong ties” of personal friendships versus the “weak ties” of internet networks. Clearly, is not an either/or choice, but a powerful cross-reinforcing combination.

Indeed, at this point, the only force that could possibly bring down the internet and put an end to this furious, sometimes frightening, often marvelous flowering of digital communication is an extra-terrestrial event: a solar storm. And it could happen. After years of quietly shining in the distance 93 million miles away, the sun is starting what scientists dryly describe as a “more active phase.” Tongues of particle-charged plasma are reaching across the heavens to short circuits here on Earth. In 1859, a solar storm fried telegraph lines. Today, that same storm would cause an estimated $2 trillion worth of “initial damage,” which could take a decade or more to fix. What Mubarek couldn’t manage, Apollo can do in a blink.

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Additional links include:

  • and more!

All links become part of the TrackerNews’ searchable archive.