How the world ends, not with a bang but a beep

The familiar and frightening beeeep, beeeep, beeeep sounded, meaning, I assumed, that the National Weather Service was again interrupting the football game on TV to warn me about extreme weather in some other part of the state. Don’t get me wrong. I like other parts of the state. I like people in other parts of the state to be safe. But I also like to watch the last two minutes of the game.

But it wasn’t the TV. The TV wasn’t on. It was — and I’m sure you’re ahead of me here — my cell phone, which was lodged between the couch and the wall, and the noise sounded like the heralding of the apocalypse, which it was.

My cell phone was warning me about the 100 year storm raining grief from the sky. My cell phone, on which I use maybe 5 percent of the available technology, had — from nowhere — taken the time out of its busy cell-phone life to make sure I was OK.

Like many of you, I worry about the NSA and its buddies using cell phone technology to track my calls and track my movements and track, for all I know, stuff I hadn’t even decided to do yet. But this is different. It’s the new world. Sirens have given way to mobiles. The 1950s duck-and-cover school day drills — when you hid under your desk to protect you from nuclear fallout — have given way to a text from FEMA telling you to stay far away from Boulder Creek.

The Emergency Broadcast System — which sounds so reassuring — was created during the Kennedy Administration so we could hear from the president in case Khrushchev dropped more than his shoe on us. But eventually the Cold War ended, and it became mostly a weather-alert service, one that has saved lives, including many in Oklahoma when the 100-year tornadoes swept through.

FEMA and the FCC have worked together on the system, which automatically works on your cell phone if it’s one of the updated, fancy-schmancier kind that everyone has by now. They apparently work even if you’ve silenced the phone. You can opt out of the system, but you don’t opt in. It’s just there, waiting for the moment to beeeep, beeeep, beeeep.

And I’m thinking that maybe just this once, the fact that they — whoever they are — always know where we are could be a good thing. Come hell or high water.

He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.


  1. Littwin, swap out your B&W photo at top right (standing in front of the building) for the image you have under “About the Author.” It’s a much better image . . . you look self-assured, ready to rake some mucks.

  2. I’ve had that thought too. We received a reverse-911 call at our home near Standley Lake one of those evenings. Thankfully, nothing happened and the canal stayed in its banks. We’d been in Fort Collins in 1997 when it was hit by a flash flood and the thing that struck me as very, very different was that I knew what was going on this time. That time, I lived two blocks north of campus in a second-floor apartment. My building had a courtyard and after a while the courtyard started to fill with water. My then-boyfriend (now husband), visiting from Philly and I watched the people in the garden-floor apartments start putting out whatever they could to block water from coming in their door. I remember calling to wish my father a happy birthday while it was still raining, and telling him that I needed to stop by the library to get some books for my master’s thesis, but I wasn’t going out in the rain. (Thankfully, or I would have been caught in the deluge rushing down toward campus!)

    We heard sirens most of the night, still having no idea what had happened. I can’t remember if we turned on the TV to watch the news or not. The next morning, I was in shock when someone told me that CSU’s library had flooded, and horrified when I walked through the dry parts of campus to see those books floating in the basement (yes, including the ones for my thesis. I don’t recommend finishing your master’s degree when all the books in your discipline have been washed away!)

    This time, thanks to social media and campus warning system messages and Code Red and reverse-911, we knew what was going on to a much greater extent. The difference is amazing, and I hope it can only get better from here.

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