Water and food supplies? Money? Items of sentimental value? A change of clothes? Some form of ID? What would you take with you in an emergency pack if you had just been through a vicious, destructive superstorm, and were emerging from 11 hours of darkness into daylight in search of the rest of the world?
If you are a crazed social media journalist suddenly without power or an internet connection then your emergency pack is of a slightly different nature: iPad, iPhone, new Mac, old Vaio, Sony digital camera, six chargers, four adapters, extension leads for multiple cameras. All the rest – including a change of clothes – were left behind when this Storyful journalist left downtown Manhattan at Bowery Street at 8am Eastern Time on Tuesday morning, emerging from dark and disconnected rooms – Internet, phones and power had been down since 9 pm the night before – into the unknown.
Most of the devices in the bag, at that time, were rendered useless. Twitter, the ultimate professional lifeline, was inaccessible. Even basic email was out, and there was no phone coverage. All that was left were the old-school journalistic tools: instead of an iPhone, a smile and an army of questions were toted onto the streets, and instead of @ing people or tracking them down online, they had to be physically approached. Pounding the pavement in this new offline world, the instincts of a pre-social media hack were put to the test.
Sources were easy to come by. People gathered at broken trees, pulled debris off their streets, stood outside apartments and screamed to neighbours about the lack of running water or queued outside coffee shops running gas stoves, while policemen manned junctions because the traffic lights weren’t working. Each person was a walking news source, filling the gaps left by the internet void.
With a cautiously reserved portion of power left on my iPad (20 per cent), I took what videos I could, but kept them short so as to capture as much of the damaged streetscapes, darkened streets and coffee-shop queues as I could. Conversations along the way with shopkeepers, police, representatives of the electrical company Con Edison and pedestrians helped to establish one key fact: the island of Manhattan was divided. One half had retained power. This meant there were working sockets somewhere, and a way to connect online and get these stories to the rest of the world. The Holy Grail beckoned: Midtown.
Every few blocks, searches were resumed for a WiFi connection, in the hope that some building with a generator could rescue a starved journalist seeking to share a story. In an unexpected miracle, the W Hotel on 17th street came up with a connection, despite being on the wrong side of the new Manhattan divide. Hunkered down in the street in the spitting rain to tap in, I made two key Skype calls and sent videos of the Sandy wreckage to Storyful. After some quick edits, this one was posted on our YouTube channel and quickly racked up over 2,000 views from those in the world of working internet:
In Midtown, hotel lobbies teemed as the free WiFi was overwhelmed by guests and desperate travelers wandering off the streets. Outside Starbucks outlets (all closed, but with WiFi connections still operating) people gathered and huddled, for once not seeking their caffeine hit but instead their online fix and a line to the outside world.
— Aine Kerr (@AineKerr) October 31, 2012
For a social media journalist, these places also teemed with news and first person accounts. People told stories of explosions and subway stations underwater, and reports travelled by word of mouth at a rate to rival Kbps.
At one poky cafe boasting free WiFi, queues formed at multiple sockets, as phones were desperately charged. Breathless gasps of “It’s okay, I’m fine, my phone was dead” came again and again. Later, it would emerge that the phrase “we’re okay” was the most common Facebook update that day. Though the search for a socket or a WiFi connection may seem trivial at a time of crisis, for many it was a way of reaching out to family and friends, sending a message to the outside world with a story of survival.
And, denied the usual online sources of information, New Yorkers – and journalists thrown back into an offline world – asked questions, exchanging information in interactions, often more social than networking. In one of the few taxis in operation, this journalist met six different people, as a “hop on, hop off” system operated. Stories of missing cats, hurricane menus of pasta or canned tuna and resurrected battery radios from childhood were exchanged. Knowledge – where to find food or working electricity – was power, albeit not the kind that could charge a phone.
Getting answers to the basic five W’s through simple human interaction and sharing that information through unconventional means, amid lines for power outlets and while piggy-backing on free WiFi in a puddle of rain was refreshing and reassuring. Even without a consistent online connection, there were ways of getting to the truth.
I was fortunate to be safe in the wake of Sandy’s devastation. I was lucky, too, that my biggest problem was how to reconnect with the online world, and through that my publishing platforms and professional lifeblood. Losing that connection brought me back to journalistic basics, and reminded me of how much can be accomplished in the physical space of real-time interaction. I still needed WiFi to tell the story. But I didn’t need an internet connection to find it.