When the tree crashed through the porch roof during Superstorm Sandy, I did what you might expect. I grabbed my cellphone, intent on sharing the news on social media. But no tweets or status updates ushered forth from suburban New York City during or after the near hurricane earlier this week.
The night Sandy ravaged the US Northeast Coast was the night big-data died -- at least for a lot of the storm's victims. As the wind roared, we rediscovered the sounds of silence.
It's hard to tweet when cellphones stop working. And, according to the Federal Communications Commission, the storm disrupted or damaged 25 percent of cell towers in 10 states.
Sandy entered the area as a Category 1 hurricane but was downgraded shortly before making landfall Monday night. Call it what you will, the storm packed a powerful punch.
An estimated 7 million people, including me, lost power. No power means no Internet. But the communications problems haven't been limited to those left in the dark.
My Verizon Fios line, which supplies my home Internet access, snapped before the electric lines. It now hangs limply on the side of my house, where it will likely remain out of service for days to come.
I don't know precisely how many other Verizon customers lost service. But from the number of Verizon repair crews in my area alone, I can estimate quite a few.
Cable subscribers haven't fared well either. About 25 percent of cable services -- the other big source of Internet connectivity -- reportedly went down, too.
In this age of big-data, the isolation of living with no phone, no texts, no social media, and no Web access is downright unnerving. And it's not over yet: Storm surge advisories are in effect through tomorrow.
In a statement yesterday, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski noted that Sandy "was, and remains, a devastating storm."
Overall, the condition of our communications networks is improving, but serious outages remain, particularly in New York, New Jersey, and other hard-hit areas… In the days and weeks ahead, we will continue to expect the unexpected as the full picture of Hurricane Sandy's impact on communications networks develops. The crisis is not over.
Genachowski further warned that communications outages could get worse before they get better, particularly for mobile networks, because of the flooding and loss of power.
Many wireless carriers were slammed, including Verizon, which still had a couple feet of water in its Manhattan headquarters two days afterward. The damage was so severe, TechCrunch reported, that some carriers asked customers to use social networks like Twitter to take the load off cell networks.
For many, big-data would, in fact, live on. While social media took a punch from the storm, they remained a big source of information. Reports indicate people worldwide got a sense of events happening in the storm in real-time, thanks to those who were still able to access social media services like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram.
The social analytics firm Topsy reported nearly 3.5 million tweets with the hashtag #sandy in the 24 hours after the storm hit. According to Mashable, Instagram users posted 10 Hurricane Sandy photos per second. Photos coming in at 60 a minute and 3,600 per hour provided more than 86,000 images in a 24-hour period. Facebook reported that the 10 words and phrases used during the height of the storm were all Sandy related, including hurricane, stay safe, be safe, and storm.
In addition, GovWin Network reports, social media helped first responders:
During previous national disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, there was no Twitter or Instragram that put breaking news in the hands of civilians. People around the world had to wait patiently by their TVs and computers for the latest images of New Orleans completely underwater, or devastating earthquake damage in Haiti. Despite widespread Internet use and the growing use of smartphones, news still wasn't quite instant.
[Tuesday] in the face of one of the biggest natural disasters to hit the East Coast, people took pictures, shot videos, sent tweets, and posted to Facebook, all in real time.
Even though some of us lost our voices, big-data still made a lot of noise during the storm.