Knocked off the grid in Jersey: Surviving on mobile tech

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.

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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 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.

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20 comments
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  • No problem here

    While you were getting soaked, it was 112 degrees and brutally sunny in Austin Texas. But that's OK, our governor says global warming is not caused by human activity, and he must be right because, after all, he is the governor and all.
    bmeacham989
    • Not for long

      @bmeacham98@..., he has his eye on a bigger office.
      itpro_z
    • RE: Knocked off the grid in Jersey: Surviving on mobile tech

      @bmeacham98@... easy solution: build a 36" water main from the NE US to Texas - will spur employment (not to mention create thousands of lawsuits trying to stop it on each and every property it crosses; taking away water from the overflowing flooding NE rivers to give to greedy Southerners, that would mean 10,000 lawyers would be needed plus 50,000 support staff!) and if built - simultaneously from all directions at the same time, employ around 30,000 people and around 200,000 secondary employment to build and transport everything to the build sites.
      IF really wanted - could be done in 2 years.
      If the project followed all the enviornmental and regulatory rules now in place - could be completed in 50.
      (After all, digging a trench 10 feet deep, putting in a pipe, putting the dirt back on it and every 15 miles a pump station IS such an engineering nightmare almost no one can do it - if it had to follow every one of our heavily regulated permit intensive multi-juristictional environment.)
      TAPhilo
      • RE: Knocked off the grid in Jersey: Surviving on mobile tech

        @TAPhilo

        ... and watch all the dollars be carted across the border because no self respecting American is going to stoop to diggin' a ditch. Especially when food stamps and unemployment insurance are so plentiful.
        WayneC369
  • Perhaps it is time...

    ...for you to invest in a generator? I hear that there is another storm lined up to head your way.
    itpro_z
    • RE: Knocked off the grid in Jersey: Surviving on mobile tech

      @itpro_z the challenge will be finding someone who can sell me one.
      jperlow
      • RE: Knocked off the grid in Jersey: Surviving on mobile tech

        @jperlow ... PLANNING for disaster and having a power generator is best before it happens!
        Since I bought a gas generator our power has never gone out more than twice for less than 10 minutes in the past 4 years. (It has flickered a few times due to wind storms, but all computer network are on UPS systems that will let them last 48 hours each, course individual PCs likely will last only 30 minutes on UPS - hence the generator for them and the Fridge!)
        TAPhilo
      • RE: Knocked off the grid in Jersey: Surviving on mobile tech

        @jperlow

        You know, I recently had a tornado breeze within 1500 feet of my place last April. Power was out for eight days. My immediate thoughts were keeping the refridgerator cold because I didn't want the food to go bad. My gasoline powered generator holds ten gallons and will burn those ten gallons in about ten hours under moderate load. Eight hours fully loaded. With gas at $3.84/gallon during the second fill up I suddenly wondered what in the hell was I doing! My three dogs ate well that week.
        WayneC369
      • RE: Knocked off the grid in Jersey: Surviving on mobile tech

        "@itpro_z the challenge will be finding someone who can sell me one. "

        http://www.bing.com/shopping/search?q=generators&FORM=HURE
        CobraA1
    • RE: Knocked off the grid in Jersey: Surviving on mobile tech

      @itpro_z Forecast for northern part of NJ seems to indicate 3 solid days of rain--Saturday through Monday.

      Doesn't even have to be windy or particularly rough weather. Just more inches of water to over-saturate that soil.
      Snark Shark
    • Generators good...

      @itpro_z I'll second the suggestion for a generator. I'm in NY, into my fourth day of no utility power, and very glad I purchased a generator about 18 months ago. Con Ed (local utility) seems to have longer and longer storm outages, and we have running refrigerators, limited lights, and now that Cablevision supplied their own portable generator for the neighborhood cable amp, phone and internet back! The generator enables us to have hot water, and during winter storms, most importantly heat. Every storm more and more houses on my street have generators. Noisy, polluting, expensive, and a PITA, but a whole lot better than abandoning the house!
      randysmith9
  • Glad to hear you're safe

    I'm a New Blue person, just starting in the Dubuque office. We went through the floods three years ago. That was after we had the ice storm that knocked out power for a couple of thousand people. I was without power for a day, but some of the people at work were without power for a week and survived because they had a camper in their driveway.

    It was after these events that I got interested in the prepper movement. It brought back all the stuff I had learned as a Boy Scout about being prepared.

    Assuming that they haven't been flooded out and they haven't been reduced to bartering because their computers are still down, your local Sears should be able to quickly get you a generator. Just make sure you right-size it: do you want to charge your cell phones or do you want to power your freezer?
    Muzhik1
  • RE: Knocked off the grid in Jersey: Surviving on mobile tech

    Everything is fine here in Montclair NJ and the surrounding towns. Not even a tree down, just some wet basements
    marksmandesign
  • Same scenario, but different outcome

    I'm in New Jersey also, and had exactly the same experience of the power outage on Sunday, followed by the estimate of 1 week until it was up.

    The big difference for me was having invested in a generator this year, I was able to keep my vital stuff running. To be sure, working off a generator is a MAJOR pain in the neck, and cheap UPSes do not work with generators (as I discovered). But it does turn a "disaster" into a "major headache".

    It's very difficult to force yourself to buy a generator during the "non-stormy" seasons, but you really should do it.
    Speednet
  • RE: Knocked off the grid in Jersey: Surviving on mobile tech

    We, here in Florida sympathize with you, as it is still in recent memory(1) what mother nature can do.

    It appears that this time, <i>unlike the aftermath of Katrina</i>, the Feds did not screw up. IMHO, having someone experienced (Fugate - he was Florida's disaster department head), as opposed to some political hack at the helm, made the difference.

    1) <b>Four hurricanes in one year</b> bashing across the state, tends to stay with you for a long while.
    fatman65536
  • RE: Knocked off the grid in Jersey: Surviving on mobile tech

    In Passaic County, I was without power for three days. So we had to throw out some refrigerator contents, big deal. I tapped off a neighbor's generator for several nights to get some lights at least. We had some TV the first night, and it worked until Cablevision's local battery units on the poles went dead (48 hours after power loss). Traffic down Rt 208 was a mess because Rt 23 was closed and people were diverting around it. I survived. I had no property damage. I had some seepage in the basement and some water come through the dining room ceiling. Nothing major.<br><br>Jason, methinks you complain too much about this. Put it into perspective please and look at the pictures of people whose houses are under water, or totally washed off their foundations, or had a tree fall onto it. Look at the towns upstate that were washed away. You had NOTHING other than the loss of connection to the outside world. The world didn't end.<br><br>Keep thinking of all those other people whose world is now upside down, and how they are going to recover from this. Think of the insurance companies who are now looking for ways NOT to pay up. Keep this in mind next time your cell phone batteries run low or you can access "CONENT... MUST HAVE CONTENT"
    WindowWasher
    • RE: Knocked off the grid in Jersey: Surviving on mobile tech

      @WindowWasher If you had read the entire piece, you would have noticed that I said that we were the LUCKY ones.
      jperlow
      • RE: Knocked off the grid in Jersey: Surviving on mobile tech

        @jperlow: I read the entire piece. I still think you are kvetching too much.
        WindowWasher
  • RE: Knocked off the grid in Jersey: Surviving on mobile tech

    Also in Jersey, not far to your west, we had 10-12 inches of water in our basement at peak; now we need to replace our year-old FVIR-compliant (look it up; a req since 2003) water heater because--surprise--its manufacturer mandates *complete replacement* of units affected even slightly by flooding. It's a money-printing machine: Water heaters are generally located *where*?<br><br>Safe drinking water and safe food are necessities of life; hot water--regardless of what my wife says--is a luxury. Those issues aside, what we re-learn as a result of a storm of this magnitude is that the blood of technological civilization is not petroleum but electricity--not only electricity that does work (motors, heaters) but electricity that carries *instructions* for doing work by delivering and hosting information.<br><br>There is the question of how much of the technocivilization supply chain individuals can/should be expected to reproduce in their own domains "just in case." Yes, our house doesn't have a sump pump yet. (Issues: Codes no longer allow new installations to empty into sanitary sewers, so where, then? Not into the backyard; in a storm like this, it'll just come right back into the basement after a short delay. So then what about power loss--the absence the blood of civilization, without which a sump pump might as well be absent? The Perlows have battery backup, I see--do those batteries power the pumps through inverters, or are your pumps dc-operated? But you get the point: The idea of having to build one's own little local grid--pushing back out through and nullifying through burgeoning local installations the various trees of logistical Contingency, from pump to generator to stored fuel and so on--seems like pushing a very large boulder uphill, as there's always another, larger contingency to plan for. Talk about stratification of Haves v Have Nots!<br><br>From a "my work depends on the grid and the network" point of view, the part of your story where I really see red is when you trekked to the IBM satellite office and the lights were on but no one was home. Through socialization we can hope to afford better, at least for work purposes, than we can individually achieve through the every-man-for himself approach embodied in building one's own local technobubble. If entities with sufficient resources--certainly, entities the likes of IBM--don't take the Irene Scenario seriously enough to keep their satellite offices manned 365/24/7 short of danger to essential personnel, expecting or even hoping that individuals and individual families will take up the slack and stay connected and participant by buildling their own personal technobubbles is planning to fail.
    TriangleDoor
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