Getting back up after an F5 tornado

A community’s cry for help challenges perspective on design and technology

What do you do when a whole community cries, “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”?

On April 27, 2011, an F5 tornado tore through Tuscaloosa, Alabama. It left a mile-wide, 20-mile long path of devastation. My heart sank when I saw the television images, as my father and extended family live there. I was on a plane then next day.

Thankfully, none of them were hurt, but my step-sister and her family were right in the thick of things. Their house was still standing, but surrounded by fallen trees. One block away, the devasation was everywhere. Here one house was crushed, with the houses on either side standing untouched. Then, as I turned, nothing but rubble for as far as the eye could see. Tree trunks snapped like toothpicks, with pieces of human construction scattered everywhere – cement blocks and bricks and broken glass interspersed with broken timber and twisted metal. And then, on the ground in front of me, a paperback book, with the cover missing.

This was not just construction debris. These were people’s homes.

15th street, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, taken May 3, 2011

For three days we sorted through the pieces, surrounded by the sights and sounds of a disaster zone. Police at every intersection. National Guard HumVees transversing the roads blended with a symphony of helicopters, bulldozers, and chainsaws. Then nightfall, curfew and everything dead quiet until dawn.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so tired – mentally, physically, psychologically.

On the plane ride home from Alabama, I kept thinking about the chaos and devastation I had just witnessed, and the stories I had heard from the people I had met. A common theme of these stories was how personal technology – cell phones, GPS devices, web cams, internet sites, the use of social media – had made a difference. And while we called and texted and googled and friended – what we really did was use new technology to address basic human needs for air, water, food, medical attention, while sharing laughter, hugs, and stories of hope and survival.

In a few weeks I’ll be attending the Wireless-Life Sciences Alliance Convergence Summit, a conference on the convergence of wireless technology and health care. As an engineer and designer the technology is fascinating, but I also keep thinking of my experiences over the last few days.

I started asking myself all kinds of crazy questions.

What amount of personal privacy would you give up to ensure the health and safety of you and your loved ones?

If everything (personal tech and medical devices) relies on charged batteries, how do we survive a power grid outage?

What good is a cell phone (or any personal wireless device) if the system itself is demolished?

How come the post office can deliver the mail to a disaster zone the very next day – but it takes 48 hours to get someone a bottle of fresh drinking water?

What good is an ambulance if there is no medical center to drive to?

These are the kinds of questions that challenge how we look at design solutions, and can help push the technology forward. I’m looking forward to exploring them at the WLSA conference.

It’s funny what an F5 tornado can do to change your perspective on things.