Snapshot by Houman Saberi

Superstorm Sandy: When the power goes out.

In 2012, Superstorm Sandy shut down New York City’s transport, power, and telecommunications infrastructure, leaving two million New Yorkers without power and impacting 17,000 homes and 23,000 businesses across the city. In response to Sandy, the New York City Economic Development Corporation launched RISE : NYC, a program to bring the benefits of resilient technologies to small businesses affected by Sandy in order to help them prepare for the impacts of future storms. As a recipient of RISE funding nearly four years after Sandy, the Resilient Communities Initiative at New America began building resilient WiFi networks in five impacted neighborhoods across the city of New York. But what is a resilient WiFi network and how does it strengthen businesses and communities?

The oft-cited definition of resiliency is the capacity to bounce-back from a shock or disaster. This means that if you have a functioning WiFi or internet network pre-disaster, then with a resilient WiFi network you should have one that can recover from the impact of the storm and function post-disaster as well. To ensure that our networks can bounce back from the next storm, the Resilient Communities team designed each network to have at least two connections to the internet via incumbent Internet Service Providers (ISPs). In other words, if a data line from one ISP (e.g. Verizon or Spectrum) goes down, there’s a back-up connection from another ISP feeding the network as well. 

In the event that all connections to the internet are lost, communication can still occur internally within a neighborhood because each network hosts a local server. This server provides access to locally hosted content (such as emergency preparedness resources), even without a connection to the internet. This way, residents can still access resiliency and emergency preparedness resources that are hosted locally and they can still use the network to communicate within their community. There’s even a backup local server in case the primary local server goes down. Finally, each node comes equipped with back-up battery power, so that in the event that there is no electricity, the network can still run for up to three days.

What this describes is the technical resiliency of physical infrastructure and we know it works. In the weeks preceding Sandy, an organization in Brooklyn called the Red Hook Initiative had partnered with local residents to build a basic community WiFi network. When Sandy’s 14-foot storm surge flooded the streets of the Red Hook neighborhood and all other telecommunications systems were down, this shoestring WiFi network was the only functioning communications network. Although telephone lines were not functioning and residents could not call out of the neighborhood, they could go to the park where the WiFi network was centered, connect to the internet, and use FaceTime, Skype, or other apps to make calls. 

Although Sandy exposed the vulnerability of New York City’s centralized infrastructure, the story of Red Hook’s community network also called attention to the potential of community-driven approaches to communications infrastructure.

This is particularly powerful for each of the five communities that Resilient Communities partnered with: thanks to their geography, each of the neighborhoods of Hunts Point, East Harlem, Gowanus, Sheepshead Bay, and downtown Far Rockaway are environmentally vulnerable. For example, 50% of the Rockaways did not have power three weeks after Sandy; and in Sheepshead Bay there were 15,000 people who registered for FEMA assistance. 

But for these communities and others like them, their geographic vulnerability is layered with histories of racial, economic, and environmental injustices. In the Bronx, residents of Hunts Point must already contend with high asthma rates due to the presence of a massive food distribution center in addition to the painful history of “benign neglect;” a policy that led to the elimination of essential city services, such as fire service, which in turn led to swathes of the South Bronx burning, displacing hundreds of thousands of residents. In Gowanus, residents have long lived side-by-side with the Gowanus Canal, a heavily contaminated and flood-prone waterway that became an EPA superfund site in 2009. 

In addition, each neighborhood also faces underinvestment in its broadband infrastructure—so much so that Harlem is referred to as a “digital desert.” Because the internet infrastructure is provisioned by the private sector, determinations about connectivity are made on a shareholder rather than stakeholder basis. As a result, low-income communities, particularly low-income communities of color that are already under-resourced and subject to the same hazards discussed above, are now deprived access to the pre-eminent infrastructure of our time, resulting in missed opportunities, including access to city services as well as employment and  schooling opportunities, just to name a few.

Taking this into account, it becomes clear why the popular definition of resiliency cannot be applied, for defining resilience as the capacity to bounce back to these structural inequalities—to the same factors that lead to vulnerability—only furthers the histories of injustice. 

The alternative to this is transformational resiliency, a form of resiliency that refers to the capacity to transform to a new state in response to stress or disaster. In other words, instead of bouncing back to the untenable status quo, a community is empowered with new resources and skills to build the future they seek.

Putting this into practice meant that, in addition to building a technically resilient WiFi infrastructure, our team partnered with community-based organizations in each neighborhood to train them on how to collaboratively design, build, and maintain their networks. Through this process, our partners have the knowledge, skills, and the relationships to sustain their work, which enhances community resiliency. Because the RISE program mandated that small businesses receive resilient WiFi installations, our partners were able to foster new relationships and strengthen existing relationships with local stakeholders. This means that in the event of a network failure, local residents have the know-how and relationships necessary to access and repair equipment, rather than waiting for an ISP to send a repair truck. This in turn helps the small business recover from disasters more quickly and empowers them to directly contribute to local recovery efforts until outside help arrives. 

Transformational resiliency seeks to build relationships within and across communities and leverage those relationships to develop collaborative solutions that prioritize mutual aid and support. With the climate crisis exacerbating existing inequality, fostering and strengthening human relationships ensures that we are no longer bouncing back to brittle infrastructures and vulnerable communities. Instead, residents have the knowledge to build and maintain their own communications infrastructure, ensuring access to opportunity between storms and connectivity during and immediately after. As communities work to build resilient WiFi communication networks, so too are they building their real-life human networks, which together empowers them to face the challenges of the future.

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Houman Saberi

Houman Saberi is the deputy director of the Resilient Communities Initiative at New America where he oversees the implementation of Resilient Networks for RISE:NYC, a project funded by the New York City Economic Development Corporation. In this role, he is helping to build resilient community wireless networks in Superstorm Sandy-affected areas of the city in partnership with local businesses, civic organizations, and residents.

Before joining New America, Saberi was the Goodman Fellow at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. As part of his fellowship, he worked with the Digital Stewards program at the Red Hook Initiative where he drafted a report detailing a community-centered approach to WiFi deployment in public housing and trained local residents on mapping their communities using open data and open-source geographic information systems software.

He holds a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience from the University of Chicago and a master’s degree in urban planning from Columbia University.

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