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Is it valid to judge Snowstorm 2014 by the worlds of 2005 and 2002?

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As the snow turned into freezing rain Wednesday and the storm’s impact on the Triangle started going from bad to worse, WRAL anchor Debra Morgan warned television viewers that widespread power outages were expected. When the outages do occur, Morgan advised, viewers should go to wral.com for updates.

My initial reaction was to laugh at her goof. How are we going to turn on our computers, I shouted at the TV, if we don’t have power? Then I remembered – oh yeah, I have a smartphone.

It was perhaps an illustration of the old military saying that underscores man’s inability to plan: We always fight the last battle. In other words, the only real experience we will ever have is, by definition, in the past, so the past must necessarily guide our present – but it’s a better guide for the past than the present.

In the Triangle, all weather preparation is compared to two events: The ice storm of Dec. 4, 2002 that left millions without powers for several days, and the infamous half-inch of snow that paralyzed Raleigh in on Jan. 19, 2005.

Those were, indeed, traumatic events that we never want to repeat. But, when it comes to weather in North Carolina, are we fighting the last battle? Life is not nearly the same as it was back then. Here are five ways in which it is different:

1) The proliferation of smartphones.

When things go wrong, you need information. No power? No problem, if you have a smartphone. I had an old slide phone until June of 2013. It worked just fine and I was proud of it, in a reverse-snobbery sort of way. “I’m not paying $500 for a phone!” I would brag, pointing out that my old phone did all the things that were truly essential.

Then my old phone got caught in the rain and it died. When I went to replace it, the salesman showed me all the features of a smartphone; I finally relented. (I didn’t pay $500 – I bought a Sony xPeria for $600; well it is water-resistant.)

I.m not the only one who has seen the light. According to comScore, a firm specializing in business digital analytics, the number of Americans owning smartphones has increased from a few million in 2005 to 143 million today. If the power goes out, we can indeed go on the Internet to find out what shelters are open, whether the mall has power, etc.

2) The proliferation of cell phone towers and Wi-Fi hotspots.

The real nightmare of Jan.19, 2005, for me, was the lack of communication. The exact details of that day are hazy, but I remember that my wife and I were not able to reach each other before leaving work. I hoped and assumed I’d be able to reach her from the road by cell phone but all the lines were jammed. I did not know whether my wife intended to pick up both kids (aged 5 and 3, at the time), one kid or neither kid. It took me about three hours to get to my oldest daughter’s school, and as I creeped along icy roads I had no idea whether she was even there.

Cell phones calls don’t always get through today, but service has greatly expanded and improved. Data for the growth of cell phone towers is surprisingly hard to come by – the best I could do is a survey from Statistic Brain showing that the number of towers in the United States had increased from 900 in 1985 to 190,000 in 2013. Meanwhile, the number of wi-fi hotspots almost tripled from 2005 to 2009 (the latest data I could find) – from about 94,000 to about 259,000.

How likely cell phones are to work in 2014 as opposed to 2005 is speculation, but with so many more towers and wi-fi hotspots, it seems safe to say that a repeat of that experience is unlikely. (How often do you hear of cell phones being jammed these days? It was common in the past.)

3) We have a lot more road cameras.

In 2002, and even in 2005, if you wanted to see road conditions, you pretty much had to just take your chances. When I finally got to my daughter’s school in 2005, it was around 8 p.m. She was the last student there. Then, I faced the task of getting home. I had no idea which roads were the worst and the most congested. It seemed like everyone choice I made was the wrong one; we didn’t get home until around 11:30 p.m.

The system we have now of road cameras and message boards existed back then but it was not nearly as extensive. N.C. DOT established its Traveler Information Management System in 1999 with about 30 cameras and eight message boards sprinkled around the Triangle, according to Steve Abbott, communications supervisor for the agency; today, the system has more than 300 cameras and 53 message boards in the Triangle, Abbott said.

You can easily access the website (which offers continuous snapshots of road conditions) from your smartphone. If I had to do that drive today, I’d check alternative roads; at least I would have a fighting chance of avoiding the most gridlocked roads.

4) The DOT is smarter in removing snow from the roads.

The agency starts even before the snow falls. About five years ago, the DOT began pre-treating major roads with salt bring before the snow even falls. “That keeps the snow from freezing; from bonding to the road and becoming ice,” Abbott explained. “Then when we go out to plow, the trucks don’t get stuck.”

5) We have social media

The number of active Facebook users has climbed from 5.5 million in 2005 to more than 1 billion today, according to the Associated Press. Of course, it didn’t even exist in 2002. Twitter didn’t launch until 2006; today, it has more than 645,000 active users.

I remember well the 2002 ice storm; the odd and unusual sounds of tree branches cracking all night long as they became coated with ice and fell to the ground. The next morning, I realized that the falling branches – and lots of fallen trees – had knocked out power throughout the area.

The funny thing, looking back, is that almost everyone communicated by landlines back then – which were not affected by power outages, as long as your phone wasn’t powered by electricity – and we all used phone books. (Remember those?) So we could reach pretty much anyone we wanted – one call at a time. Now, we can reach all of our friends at once on Facebook or Twitter.

So if I wanted to know where I could find size D batteries, I could simply post something on Facebook or Twitter (and, by the way, I do – I’ll get back to that later).

Steve Abbott believes we are a lot better prepared than we used to be: “After all of these events, we go back and say, ‘What worked and what didn’t work?’ We learn something.”

No doubt we will learn something from the events of Feb. 12 and 13, 2014. I hope they will help us five years from now.

-- Dan Holly,

Managing Partner

GTB Communications

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