Communication Currents

Snowbound: Is There a Word from Washington?

April 1, 2010
Crisis Communication, Digital Communication & Gaming

The start of the year 2010 affected communication networks throughout the world in profound ways. Indeed, the massive snowstorm in the Washington, DC area, along with the earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, and Turkey, severely degraded or destroyed traditional communication and electrical power systems, leaving citizens wondering how they would reach family, friends, coworkers, and others. How is communication affected when the means by which we normally communicate are taken away, and when our surroundings are disrupted beyond anything we can imagine?

The earthquakes in Haiti, Chile, and Turkey brought with them massive destruction of buildings and infrastructure, and took an enormous toll on the communication systems in each country. In Haiti, radio stations, which had previously been a main source of information for Haitian citizens, were destroyed; in Chile, telecommunications systems were obliterated. In both cases, citizens were unable to communicate with the outside world in the immediate aftermath of the quakes, and widespread power outages hindered the restoration of communication. In the initial absence of traditional telecommunications networks following the disasters, social networking technologies, such as texting and Facebook, allowed the world to view the widespread damage, and led the way in helping loved ones and government officials to slowly restore contact with others who anxiously awaited news of survivors.

Whether in isolated villages and rural areas, or in Washington, people waited for days to receive aid, and many were unable to communicate their situation to those who sought to provide assistance. As in many disasters, those who were able to use wireless digital communication technology found themselves acting as relay stations, making voice, data, and video services available to strangers who had lost their own traditional communication facilities, while batteries and solar-powered radios became more valuable than ever, especially in earthquake-ravaged countries.

Nowhere was the disruption in digital communication more obvious than in Washington, DC. In late February 2010, Americans experienced what it means to not hear from a government that thrives on having something to say all the time. In a massive, once in a lifetime snowfall, the city of Washington found itself paralyzed, gripped, and immobilized. People who could not physically move, including politicians, bureaucrats, and lawyers, gave up their power lunches, strategy sessions, and face-to-face mega-meetings. Instead, at least for those who had electric power, computer-mediated communication became the order of the day, as many organizations tried to keep things moving.

The Federal Government shut down for four days under the weight of over 60 inches of snow. Other organizations that call Washington home also shut down, along with virtually every means of transportation used to move their staffs to and from work. With the exception of brave owners of cross-country skis, Hummers, and mountain bikes, most residents of the DC area found themselves emailing, twittering, and updating other frozen-in friends via Facebook, while others relied on traditional telephones to keep family and acquaintances up-to-date on their lack of activity. Cell phones and laptop batteries were drained during power outages, with their owners resorting to digging their way to their vehicles to charge their electronic devices. Those without power for days invariably suffered from email withdrawal, as webcams, Skype, and other communication tools were unavailable, and the focus changed to keeping warm and preventing food from spoiling. Many carefully selected DVDs remained unplayed while residents hunkered down for the long haul waiting for power to be restored.

Many of us outside the DC area were treated to the pastoral scenes of Washington in white, where the vast majority of the press reports focused on snow plows, or the lack of them, as Maryland's governor, Martin O'Malley, and other municipal leaders pulled their plows from the streets, while blizzard-like conditions made it nearly impossible to restore mobility. Mobile communication became immobile. While political communication gave way to weather reports, spiritual communication in the National's Capital ground to a halt, with the exception of televised programs and the scrolls across TV screens announcing closings of thousands of churches in the area.

In Washington, restaurants and watering holes, typically used for after-work caucuses and meals with friends were shuttered, while the ultimate in groupthink, snowball fight flash mobs spurred on by social networking, replaced the protest marches and parades usually found in Washington. Perhaps one place where interpersonal communication was practiced was the grocery store, where lines extended to the back of the store, and weary clerks were treated to continuous streams of customers, all rushing before the storm, and during the lulls, to strip every supermarket of every conceivable item.

In many cases, weeks elapsed before school systems in the Washington region recovered, and parents became home school instructors by necessity. Unlike areas that routinely receive major snowfalls, Washington-area residents, rarely forced to stay home because of snow, became better acquainted with their children, who were unable to play in the 6 feet of snow that fell in the area. As usually happens in the aftermath of inclement weather, we should also expect to see the birth rate skyrocket, as “blizzard babies” begin to arrive on the scene, in a repeat of a phenomenon observed during snowstorms of 1978, 1996 and 2006.

As a native Washingtonian, I too found myself headed to the phone and computer, incessantly calling friends and relatives, spending countless hours listening to streaming audio from DC radio stations, and gawking at traffic webcams showing scenes of my old neighborhoods and wide avenues filled with snow. On a visit three weeks later, I was stunned to see the 10 foot high snow/ice mountains that remained, and had to negotiate my car into parking spaces surrounded by piles of snow.

Slowly, but surely, things are getting back to normal in Washington, DC, as legislators return to the never-ending quest to gain face time on C-Span by freezing unemployment benefits and stimulus spending. Recovery for Haiti and other countries affected by earthquakes is slow, but continues. Nevertheless, the epic blizzard in the mid-Atlantic, as well as the natural disasters of 2010, will leave communication scholars with a wealth of data on what happened when highly communicative regions suddenly found themselves with no way to communicate, and with nothing much to communicate about.