NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, October 2008
Personal Technology and the Hurricane Ike Evacuation
By Ira Wilsker, APCUG Director;
Columnist, The Examiner, Beaumont, TX; Radio & TV Show Host

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I am typing this as an evacuee from Hurricane Ike, from the home of one of my daughters in Wylie, Texas, an eastern suburb of Dallas. By the time you read this, I should be home. As most readers already know, we listened to the 10pm news on Wednesday, September 10, and were told that no evacuation had been announced; at about 10:30pm, I received an automated call from the college that there would be no classes Thursday or Friday due to Ike. At 6am Thursday, county officials announced a mandatory evacuation. We had never fully unpacked from the Hurricane Gustav evacuation only two weeks earlier, so we were ready to go rather quickly. The first item in my suitcase was my Seagate USB 2 external hard drive, which had current backups of all of my critical data files. I knew it was current and up to date as I use NTI’s Shadow 3 (http://www.ntius.com/shadow.asp ; version 4 was recently released) to maintain real time backups in native format. If I came home to a damaged computer, as many returning evacuees are now finding, I would be able to restore my data to another computer.

Since Galveston County and parts of Harris County (metro Houston) were also evacuating, we were compelled to follow one of the two local hurricane evacuation routes to the north, not a route we would normally take to see my kids in the Dallas area. This is where another now common piece of personal technology demonstrated its mettle, my Magellan 4100 GPS. We had only followed this route once before, and that was for our infamous Hurricane Rita evacuation three years ago, when it took us 22 hours to get to Dallas, normally a 6 hour drive, including a few stops. Three years ago for Rita it was “map in hand”, trying to read a map to get to my daughter’s apartment in Richardson; now it was simply entering the address of her new house in the GPS, and letting it direct us there. Since we beat the rush to the evacuation route, and selected the longer but less traveled alternate route (Highway 96), we made it to Dallas in only 7 hours. Being well ahead of our original “ETA”, created a minor problem for us; the daughter whose house we would be staying at in Wylie would not be off from work for several more hours, so we had to spend several hours at another daughter’s house in Garland. Selecting the Garland address from the GPS’s internal address book rerouted us to the Garland address.

The GPS worked flawlessly, including rerouting me after my error of being on the wrong lane on an exit ramp. Directing me on to totally unfamiliar roads in an area where I have never before driven, the GPS proved its worth as it announced that we had arrived at our destination just as we pulled in front of the Garland house. The process was repeated when driving from Garland to Wylie, when again the GPS led us directly to the door of our ultimate destination.

Once comfortably settled in my daughter’s Wiley house, it was time to take advantage of the technology of the house. I had my notebook (laptop) computer, so of course I wanted internet access. The house has Verizon FiOS fiber optic service with hundreds of TV channels, and a very fast internet connection. The house is configured with a secured wireless 802.11g system, with the newer and more secure WAP encryption. Because the password is complex, as it should be, I had minor difficulties configuring my notebook to the system, but finally accomplished the task. In addition to email, I watched the streaming live video from KFDM channel 6 (KFDM.com), listened to KLVI streaming radio over the net (KLVI.com), read the news postings on the Examiner website (http://www.theexaminer.com), and accessed other informational websites to keep track of what was going on at home. I heard news including one of my co- workers trapped in her Bridge City attic calling for help (KFDM channel 6), and Al Caldwell asking me a question on the air (KLVI) about using a computer on a generator. One particular website I frequently visited was the message board on the LIT disaster site. I have been teaching for LIT for over 31 years, and wanted to know what was going on at the college campus. Giving credit where credit is due, Janet Bray, and her coworkers, set up the LIT message board, reminiscent of her Herculean efforts during Hurricane Rita, where she was an unsung heroine by providing a local online message board where Rita evacuees could communicate. For Ike she used here talents and experience to do the same for LIT, where she is now the webmaster. I also used my computer to pay my credit card bills online using my credit union’s online bill payer service. Since I have not seen any mail in the last 10 days, I knew that some credit cards were coming due. I called the 800 number on the back of the credit cards, got my statement balances, went online to the credit union and made my payments.

My daughter in Wiley has a conventional TV in the guest bedroom where we stayed, and this TV is connected to the Verizon FiOS. Unknown to her because that TV is rarely used, Verizon discontinued analog transmissions, making the TV useless without a converter box. Despite calling Verizon to get the free converter box, it has still not arrived. Not to be deprived of bedroom TV, I used my Pinnacle PCTV HD Pro Stick (http://www.pinnaclesys.com), a USB 2 device, to watch TV on my computer. At first I used the included high gain antenna, and picked up local analog, digital, and HD stations. From Wiley, most analog transmissions were weak with the telescoping antenna, but the digital and HD stations came in very clearly. After a few days of watching on-air TV, I decided to experiment with the system and see if it could receive the digital FiOS signal. I connected the cable to the PCTV HD Pro Stick, and it worked fine. I now had over 350 channels to view on my computer! While everything functioned flawlessly, and any channel selected showed well, including HD channels, there was one problem with the program guide. The local channels were all labeled with their name or call sign, but the purely cable channels were labeled as “unknown” with a digital channel designation beside the label. It took some experimenting and some time, but I eventually found a few of my favorite cable channels among the “unknown” labels.

The other personal technology we used heavily was our cell phones, a now ubiquitous item. At least two of the carriers, Verizon (dial 611 and then 0) and T-Mobile (dial 611 and ask for “customer care”), offered benefits to those evacuated because of IKE. Verizon gave a free month of service, and T-Mobile gave up to 700 primetime minutes. Other carriers may have had programs for evacuees, but I am unaware of them at this time.

Our home telephone service is a marvel of technology, but the new digital technology may be creating some problems. Many of the AT&T customers without power still have wired (not cordless) phone service when the power is out; that is because many of the phone lines are underground, and the phone system is self powered. Users of the digital phone services, such as from the cable company, may find their phones are out when the power is out. The cable companies often wait until power is restored before making repairs to their systems, leaving digital phone users unable to use their phones.

Ike was a tragedy, both in terms of lives lost, and property damage. While tragic for many, and stressful for most, the appropriate utilization of personal technology can go far to reduce some of the stresses of evacuation and recovery.

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