Knocked off the grid in Jersey: Surviving on mobile tech

Summary:Hurricane Irene severed all power to my town and forced me into using mobile technology as my main link to the outside world.

I thought it was just going to be another windy, rainy weekend. I figured that my DirecTV would be useless and I'd have to survive on Netflix movies. Or worse, if my Internet went down, I'd have to read a bunch of books on my Kindle. We'd eat what was left in the fridge, 'cause there was no way the Chinese delivery guy was showing up in a tropical storm.

I was not really prepared to endure what was going to happen next.

The heavy rains and winds came late Saturday night. My DVR attempted to record a few shows, but DirecTV reception went completely to hell. Okay, so I'll just have to set it to reschedule a bunch of stuff later in the week. Not a huge tragedy.

My Internet stayed up all night, so I was able to check in with Stormpulse, NOAA and the Weather Channel. My iPad apps and hurricane websites all said that Irene had been downgraded to a tropical storm or a strong tropical depression for when it would hit the New York metro area, just as they kept telling us it would the days before it made landfall.

Also See: Hurricane Tracker Applications and Websites for your iPad and Tablets

Late Saturday night and early Sunday morning was pretty much uneventful with the exception of the heavy rain. I had already powered down all of my computer systems the day before. We went to bed, and connected all of our mobile devices and laptops to their chargers and jacked them into surge suppressors.

Then Sunday came.

It's easy to lull yourself into a false sense of security after a storm has passed. I woke up around 9am, the sky was gloomy, but there was no rain. The winds weren't even that bad. Our power was on, and our sump pumps were working overtime clearing out our perimeter water remediation system we spent a fortune on getting installed a few years ago.

The basement stayed dry. My Broadband was still working. DirecTV reception was good. So we thought it was all over.

I powered on my Mac Mini and decided I would do some writing and check in with the CBSi crew. Zack Whittaker told me during a Skype call that a bunch of folks from ZDNet had lost power and might not be able to generate content, so we discussed his plan to take over the main editorial Blog, Between the Lines, and do some news coverage about Irene and put some things up to keep the kettle warm. CONTENT! MUST... HAVE... CONTENT!

I had just started working on a nice, juicy gallery post for David Grober at around 3PM when everything stopped. Like, everything. Lights, fans, computers, AC system, the whole ball of wax. And then I started to hear the loud, nerve-wracking "BEEP! BEEEEEEEEP! BEEEEEEEEEEEP!" coming from the dual truck battery backups for my sump pumps every sixty seconds or so.

That sound meant that the reservoirs were being topped and pumped out, but I had an estimated 12 to 20 hours left before it could pump no more. That meant that potentially, even though we were currently dry, we could still flood our basement if power was not restored in time.

The hurricane was gone, but the ground was so saturated with water it could still be a serious problem.

Before the hurricane hit, the soil saturation in Jersey was around ninety percent due to weeks of an unseasonably rainy August. Overnight, Tropical Storm Irene just dumped 12 to 14 inches of rain on top of it, causing the soil to essentially liquefy and making homes that were not zoned in a flood plain completely flooded if they didn't have the kind of remediation system my house had.

If you were in a flood plain, God help you.

That soil liquefaction also meant that the some of the big oak trees in our town would fall over and knock down a ton of power lines, hitting houses, cars, businesses, et cetera, adding to whatever other problems PS&G and the local authorities would have to deal with, such as blown out sub stations that had flooded out.

The official story from the company's automated phone message to all customers in New Jersey was that that power would be restored by September 4th. That was a WEEK away.

There was no way in hell my wife and I could stay in a house with no power for a week.

As a home-based/mobile employee at IBM, I had to think about how I would report to work, if possible the next morning or day after. I also had come to the realization that although we could just pack up and leave for my Mother-in-Law's house which was only an hour away, who managed to have been spared a power outage, I still had a refrigerator and a freezer's worth of food (DAMN YOU COSTCO!) that needed to be moved or consumed pretty much immediately.

So my plan was to stay in my powerless house one night, monitor the sump and power situation, and then figure out what the hell I was going to do with all of this food that was going to go bad if the power didn't come back by the next morning.

The first thing we did was check in with our power company's web sites on our Verizon Wireless smart phones (which thankfully had intermittent cellular 3G service) and their Twitter account. This is the kind of stuff they sent out as updates:

So while it was nice to hear that PSE&G was sending out an army of people to address the issues, we really had no idea when our actual town would get power back.

We spent a sleepless night hearing the relentless beeping of our sump pump backup system and checking the basement for water.

I kept in touch with my colleagues and family via cell phone calls and email using my mobile apps.

Fortunately, I was able to make use of Lotus iNotes, a mobile web browser interface into my corporate email system, and get the word out to everyone that I was okay but I would likely be out of pocket for a few days.

Monday morning, after breathing a sigh of relief that the ground water had receded to the point where my sumps were no longer required, I jumped in the car to survey the area.

I was lucky enough to find an open gas station to fuel up my vehicle -- on Sunday, they were all closed and I wasn't smart enough to fuel up on Friday night. Only Super was left, as many folks had bought regular gas to power their generators, but as it turns out that's the only kind my 20-year old V-8 beast of a Mercedes-Benz 560SEL will drink.

A lot of power was out where I lived and in the surrounding towns. This was not just a few knocked down tree branches cutting a few power lines on telephone poles affecting a block of houses here and there, this was major infrastructure failure on a massive scale.

In several parking lots in the adjoining towns, PS&G had begun set up these giant mobile transformer/generator units, presumably to temporarily replace the ones that had been damaged or destroyed by the storm.

Our mobile device batteries were running low. With no house power, I needed to get them charged, and soon, and I didn't want to waste precious car gas and battery charging them with my 12-volt adapters.

Although they were useless without broadband internet, we had already pretty much used up our laptop batteries the night before as emergency charging stations hooked up to the USB cables -- we had set up our laptops to deactivate Wi-Fi and screen blank but not go to suspend mode when the lids closed, so that most of the battery power would be used to charge the phones.

I drove to a nearby office park that happened to have a small IBM satellite branch. Everything looked fine from the outside, as I heard the mechanical noises of what seemed to be the A/C units and saw lights on in some of the offices. So I thought I could set up shop there and check in with the Big Blue mothership.

There were only a few cars in the parking lot, so I figured a lot of people stayed at home or couldn't get to work due to flooded roads. I parked my car, got out, and approached the main entrance. The first electronic door swooshed open. The second... locked shut. And I heard alarms. I could see through the glass windows that nobody was in the lobby, no security guy, absolutely no one.

With my cellphone, I called my boss in Dallas and let her know that there was no way I was reporting into work that day. Apparently, quite a number of folks in my division were in the same situation, as our company is pretty northeast-heavy. My other-co workers who could not report to work on my current project were also experiencing "Irene-related Issues" as it is being communicated to our customers, for lack of a better descriptor.

Defeated, we went and got breakfast at a local diner that happened to have power. Afterwards, we went home, packed up our refrigerator and freezer contents into boxes and headed over to a friend's restaurant that had power and walk-in freezer space. At least our freezer stuff would be saved, but we had a ton of stuff that we had to get over to my Mom's house quickly and eat pretty much in the next day or two, or it would all spoil.

I knew that a lot of other families would not be so lucky.

After dropping off our freezer boxes at the restaurant, we made the trek to mom's. We got the twelve volt adapter out for our smartphones and began charging them in the car.

I knew from the beginning that this was not going to be a quick trek at all. What should have been a half hour or forty minute drive under normal conditions ended up being a two and a half hour ordeal -- many roads were impassable due to being near flooded rivers (such as the Passaic) and tributaries and some had turned into actual lakes for lack of decent drainage, like NJ Route 46.

Instead of our usual highway route, we had to divert through Paterson, a major northern New Jersey urban center, which was jam packed with through traffic with families trying to do exactly the same thing we were. Interstate 80, the main highway out, was also a parking lot.

We finally arrived at Mom's at 6PM. Fortunately, we were able to save most of our food. We grilled up a bunch of defrosted burgers and made a salad from produce that needed to be eaten, and plugged in our phones. I finally checked in with my colleagues via corporate email using my work laptop and my in-laws' broadband, and we spent the night.

I slept like a baby.

Although we were exhausted after the weekend's events, we knew after seeing news coverage on TV and reading articles on the web that we were among the lucky ones. Tons of people had severe property damage due to falling trees and a lot of houses in low-lying areas were destroyed from flooding. There are entire New Jersey communities which have been completely devastated or wiped off the map.

While power returned to my house and my town early this morning and we plan to return this evening, there are still many residents in our area that don't have power back yet. I'm hoping they all get up back and running, and soon.

How did Hurricane Irene affect you and your family? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

See also:

Topics: Hardware, IBM, Laptops, Mobility, Telcos

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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