Change in the Weather

Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

At the headquarters of the National Weather Service in Silver Spring, Maryland, Next Generation Radar (Nexrad) measures severe weather by bouncing signals off obstructions in the atmosphere. The various speeds of return show up as colors on the radar screen. Although flocks of migrating birds appear as clouds on the radar in the very early spring, as do hordes of mosquitoes in July and certain ocean swells, the colors typically correspond to weather conditions: Red might mean hail, yellow indicates heavy precipitation, light rain shows up as green. On Tuesday, September 11, the Nexrad radar over the Eastern U.S. at 10:30 a.m. registered a vast and severe thunderstorm, a yellow cloud speckled with red, spread out across the entire New York City metropolis, from Hartford, Connecticut, to Philadelphia.

We in the U.S. are technologically equipped to address earthquakes, tornadoes and hurricanes, but ever since the civil defense signs disappeared from public buildings as the Cold War waned in the 1980s, we have lost the vocabulary to diagnose and report apparent crises of international terrorism. We test our emergency broadcast systems, but no longer our air-raid sirens. On Tuesday morning, not even the recorded error messages of the telephone network had the words to describe the damage. “Due to a tornado in the area, we cannot complete your call as dialed,” reported a message to callers dialing Brooklyn’s 718 area code. It was as if we had fallen off the main sequence of tragedies.

Unlike the phone system, however, the Internet was, according to the official mythology, built to route around the damage of war time. In some ways it didn’t fail us. E-mail discussion lists previously dedicated to bickering about the music industry or local politics turned to sorting truth from rumor, the safe from the missing, as well as exchanging apologies with fellow contributors for past slights. New Yorkers who couldn’t be reached by phone signed on to Yahoo Messenger or America Online to transmit news by instant messaging; e-mail, junk or otherwise, moved as smoothly as if it ran on a separate track in a parallel universe. On the World Wide Web, one could follow the trail of disaster: The World Trade Center location of the Marriott Hotel offered a spare plain-text message with a contact number for family and friends of the missing. The official site of the World Trade Center reported that it had exceeded bandwidth. Many other sites lingered in the ether like phantom limbs, oblivious and serene. The elegantly animated promotional site for the World Trade Center restaurant Windows on the World, with its whimsical new moon hovering over the lighted towers, went on taking reservations through Tuesday night, an oblique and eerie reminder that the digital location of a business rarely corresponds to the physical one. (The site is hosted by Microserve, Inc., a mile or so north on 5th Avenue.)

Unlike the aftermath of a violent storm or earthquake, however, Tuesday’s attacks will forever alter the terms of electronic discourse. Almost immediately, several anonymous remailers and proxies, services that strip email of any identification that might trace it back to its origins, suspended operations. “The operators of anonymous services need to protect themselves,” wrote J. Francois, who temporarily shut down his proxy delivery service for throwaway, Web-based e-mail. “We are mostly a volunteer effort and cannot afford to defend ourselves from the litigation that I predict will come from trying to determine how this act could have been so well coordinated.” Francois insisted that shutting down was, at least temporarily, the right thing to do. “As a Gulf War vet,” he wrote, “I understand the need for this to happen.”

At 8:59 a.m., before he had heard the news, David Jacobs, a Brooklyn resident and software architect, posted to the Web log randomWalks a New York Times interview with Bill Ayers, the former Weather Underground bomber who recently published a memoir, Fugitive Days. While the Twin Towers were being designed and built in 1972, Ayers was planting bombs in the Pentagon and the Capitol. “I don’t regret setting bombs,” he told reporter Dinitia Smith in the interview, which ran, presciently, Tuesday morning. “I feel we didn’t do enough.” Only a few minutes later, Jacobs did what the Times couldn’t: He explained the strange synchronicity. “It’s a complete coincidence that I posted about the weathermen moments before the WTC & Pentagon fires,” he wrote on the site. “More soon.”


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