College of Arts & Letters Program Explores Science, Technology and Sandy

11/29/2012

Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast in November 2012 and devastated vast areas of New York and New Jersey, from the coastlines to the surburbs to the urban centers. It was the deadliest hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland since Katrina in 2005, killing at least 130 people in eight states and causing tens of billions of dollars of damage. High winds downed trees and power lines, leaving millions of citizens in the dark and cold for days and weeks. Without power to work the pumps, gas lines formed for miles long and forced gas rationing in both New York and New Jersey. Flooding caused so much destruction to the transporation insfrastructure – especially rail lines and subway tunnels – that some systems aren’t projected to begin operating normally for many months.

On Nov. 28, faculty and students experts from Stevens gathered together to conduct an in-depth examination of how Sandy exposed serious vulnerabilities in the region’s foundational social and technological systems. The special program from the College of Arts & Letters (CAL), which drew an interdisciplinary audience of students and faculty, featured presentations by James McClellan, professor of history, Alan Blumberg, professor of Ocean Engineering and director of the Center for Maritime Systems (CMS), Lee Vinsel, assistant professor of Science & Technology Studies, and Alison Outwater ’15, volunteer coordinator for the City of Hoboken.

The Sandy discussion, called “Hurricane Sandy in Perspective,” emphasized the core underpinnings of CAL’s new undergraduate Science & Technology Studies (STS) program, which launched this fall with two majors – Science Communication and Science, Technology & Society. With an academic mission  to explore the intersection of social issues, culture values and scientific and technological innovation, Hurricane Sandy highlighted the pressing need to engage in such conversations.

“STS is a field born out of the need to examine the kinds of issues Hurricane Sandy exposed,” said CAL Dean Lisa Dolling.

“Looking at the impact of science and technology in its various social, economic and political settings – especially during a disaster like Hurricane Sandy – is critical to guiding future research and innovation as well as policymaking,” added Andrew Russell, director of the STS program.

At the event, the speakers reflected on a number of pressing questions at the crossroads of technology and society in the 21st century – questions made especially prevalent by Hurricane Sandy. How did our infrastructures develop the way that they did? How do we communicate during disasters? What are the moral and social obligations of scientists and engineers who develop everyday technologies?

There were many interesting ideas presented – all with the goal of advancing our collective knowledge of the complex science and technological issues Sandy exposed and uncovering how science and technology might help or impede efforts to better prepare society for similar disasters in the future.

McClellan spoke about Sandy from a historial perspective.

“Sandy showed the fragility of the infrastructure that supports industrialized society, systems that are pretty new in historical terms at approximately 250 years old,” he said.

He added that the collective failure of tchnological systems – from electic and power to heat and refrigeration to sewage to transportation – illuminated a hierarchy of importance of these systems within society.

Blumberg’s presentation focused on the observing and forecasting models of the Davidson Laboratory at Stevens, which were more accurate in predicting the historic storm surge flooding in the New York Harbor than other government and university technologies. Using complex formulas and data, the system predicts water levels three days in advance and communicates flood warnings to users of the technology, including scientists, politicians and first responders.

“One problem we faced during Sandy was communicating the science behind what we predicted to the media and to the public,” said Blumberg, who along with other CMS scientists contributed regularly to the national media’s coverage of the hurricane and the recovery.

Blumberg also shared climate change adaptation strategies being researched by Stevens scientists which have the potential to amerliorate hurricanes. One idea is to grow wetlands in the New York Harbor to slow storm surges. Another – which has already been tested in prototype-form – is to construct “hurricane slaying pumps” in the ocean to cool the water surface by cycling cold water from the bottom of the ocean to the top.

“Climate change is going to bring more hurricanes,” he said.

Outwater, a dual Mechincal and Civil Engineering major, shared her experience as an emergency first-responder and volunteer coordinator for the City of Hoboken during the Sandy recovery effort. Despite very little prior experience or training, she spent the week evacuating the sick and injured, delivering water and other supplies to stranded residents, manning an emergency call center, organizing donations, coordinating the activities of the National Guard and FEMA, and directing the work of more than 3,000 volunteers, including hundreds of Stevens students.

“I never thought I would appreciate power so much,” said Outwater. “We were doing all of this critical work out of one room, powered by a generator, using pads and pencils. Because I didn’t lose power, my cell phone became the emergency line for all of the volunteers.”

Finally, Vinsel – who will teach a “Sandy Studies” class at Stevens – discussed some of ways Sandy opened his eyes to certain aspects of society and culture, including how innovation happens, how government works, how poverty exacerbates disaster and how communities come together.

He was particularly struck by the charging stations that popped up around Hoboken.

“It was an innovation born from disaster and born from the heart – something that would not have happened when our technological systems were working perfectly,” he said.