Electronics brought to extremes by Sandy

-November 01, 2012

First, to all of our friends on the East Coast of the United States this week, we hope you are well and that any damages or injuries you may have incurred during Hurricane Sandy are minimal.

You may have had trouble reaching some of the EDN editorial team this week, as we were right in the heart of the storm, many of us based on Long Island in New York. Rest assured that, while the electricity is expected to be out for some time and we’ve had some damages to personal property, we are all fine.

Long Island, as you’ve probably seen on the news, was one of the hardest hit areas by Sandy. In my neighborhood, hundred-year-old oak trees were swept down like dominos.

Here’s a photo of a neighbor’s tree, so large that when it fell it went from the center of their front yard, across the road and into mine. A few more feet to the south and my husband’s home office would be gone. For some perspective, that gray thing in the middle of the branches is a six ton boulder that sits on our front lawn at about 4 and a half feet high.

I have a similar situation in the back yard, where another neighbor’s tree came crashing down, taking out our fence and three cars.

The trees were among several that took down power lines and blocked roads in and out of the neighborhood. Tired of waiting for the town crews to come through and clear the roads, folks were using personal chain saws to try and clear paths. We snuck out a few days after the storm by driving across a neighbor’s muddy yard, under some dangling power lines, and through part of a down tree someone else had cut back.

But I’m not complaining. My family is safe and so are my neighbors. And my part of Long Island didn’t face the flooding that others did (see this post by fellow Long Islander and EDN editor Steve Taranovich). Such flooding in Manhattan turned building basements into lakes, and tunnels and subways into “raging rivers,” according to reports during the storm.

That prompted NY Governor Andrew Cuomo to state that much of Manhattan will need to be rebuilt because of the “extreme weather” we’ve experienced in the last few years.

“We’re getting a 100-year flood every two years,” the governor said during a radio broadcast press conference. “New York isn’t built for this. Unlike other parts of the country, we did not experience flooding when our structures were built decades ago.”

His reference had to do in part with the placement of building electricity generators in basements, opposed to on roofs. The basements flooded and the generators, too big to move, were destroyed. Cuomo also noted various electrical systems in tunnels and subways that were under water and would have to be replaced.

In a brief moment on Tuesday – in between the political grandstanding and “I feel your pain” type of statements that come stronger than hurricane-force winds from politicians’ mouths during such natural disasters – he called upon engineers to herald the necessary rebuild. After giving proper credit to the first responders, Cuomo said: “The people that build electronics and engineer these systems, are the ones we need” to protect and prepare us against the next extreme weather event.

It’s not just flooding that’s caused billions of dollars in damages to NY and other states in the region in recent years. US East Coasters saw record snowfall and outages during the blizzards of 2010/2011, excessive heat and dry spells during the summer of 2012, plus various tornadoes and an unusual amount of earthquakes, all of which had detrimental effects on various electronics and systems not built for such unfamiliar extremes.

Life isn’t over (for most of us) without power and working electronics, but it sure is more difficult. The local power authority here has said it could take two weeks to get power back to my area. Authorities hope to have electronics repaired so that the subways, buses, and trains can be running on schedule again by the end of the week. Damages to various buildings, bridges, and roads are expected to amount to Katrina-ballpark figures. 

So engineers, once again, it’s on you. There’s an opportunity and challenge ahead to build electronics and systems that not only withstand everyday abuses but such extreme weather events like flooding, tornadoes, and 100-plus-degree temperatures.

Are you up to it? Do you believe in this notion of “extreme weather” or have we just had some bad luck? Post your thoughts below.

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