Irene hits power, web infrastructure; Cell networks struggling to cope

Estimating the damage of Hurricane Irene in the "billions of dollars", Manhattan's power and web connections took a beating, but suburban areas are hit the worst.
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor

As Irene is downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm as she works her way through New York City and Massachusetts, over four million are without power, and critical infrastructure is struggling to cope with flood waters.

With downed power lines and Internet connections struggling to remain connected, many are turning to an already overflowing cell network to keep up to date with news and the latest on the storm.

Source: Reuters (BBC)

From ZDNet correspondents on the ground, many are saying that the major population centers -- including the New York City/New Jersey and the Washington D.C. (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia) metropolitan areas are generally coping, with outlying and suburban areas struggling to cope with infrastructure outages; notably electricity supplies that power most of the eastern seaboard's broadband Internet connections.

Power outages widespread

As four million homes are struggling with electricity, CBS New York reports that downed telephone and electricity wires are a "major issue" -- with many power lines still live.

Much of the focus has been on New York City, in particular Manhattan -- the home of the New York Stock Exchange -- where the impact of Irene will no doubt be reflected in the stock markets come Monday.

According to Jason Perlow, there are nearly one million people in the New York metropolitan area without power -- and many hundreds of thousands without Internet connections.

Mary Jo Foley noted that Queens has greater problems with infrastructure than Manhattan; while Battery Park City was struggling with a storm surge, as sea levels reached a peak of five feet above normal levels.

As assessments are yet to begin, it is not clear whether the closed New York City Subway has suffered any damage in the flooding, and how bad the electricity supply was affected long-term.

Con Ed, a major supplier of power in the New York City area, told the BBC's New York correspondent Laura Trevelyan that the flooding was "not as bad as was feared", noting that it did not have to turn off the grid.

700,000 people in the Manhattan area are without power and broadband.

Because cable, fiber and DSL connections are hooked into the power grid, many have suffered with outages in Internet access. It is estimated that over 3.5 million users across the eastern seaboard have been cut off from the web in the midst of Irene's passing.

How cell networks are coping

Cell networks have suffered significantly, with many worried that cell service would be cut as the hurricane moved from Florida northwards across the eastern seaboard.

The earthquake, measuring 5.9 on the Richter scale, tested the cell networks in preparation of the impending storm, flooding the carriers with tweets, social media updates, text messages and phone calls.

AT&T, Sprint and Verizon were all preparing to ensure that as much service as possible remained amid the storm, putting in additional power generators near cell sites and mobile towers rolled in to deploy in case of an outage.

Heavy network congestion, known as the "9/11 effect", is the one cause of disruption to many, as thousands turn to the cell networks and laptop tethering to counter dropped landline connections cut off by downed power supplies.

But on the most part, cell coverage continued. Though, for many, the connections for many have been slow, they have not crumbled under the additional stresses put on the networks by increased activity and storm-damaged cell towers.

Underground cabling assessment

Meanwhile, FEMA, the government agency responsible for emergency planning, has said that flooding is "definitely the biggest issue" for many.

But while correspondents have said that the waters are receding and storm drains are returning to normal levels, the lasting damage of underground cabling, running underneath the streets of Manhattan, remains unclear until formal assessments are undertaken.

As low-lying areas of Manhattan were ordered to evacuate, Battery Park City was hit with localised flooding from rising seawaters.

Nearby is Wall Street, home of the financial district and the New York Stock Exchange, has backup generators powering the self-running set of systems, according to a spokesperson.

While it will open on Monday, it is not clear whether any damage to underground cabling will hinder stock trading efforts.

But as assessments are underway, state and local governments have begun to calculate the cost of the damage. In New Jersey alone, governor Chris Christie suggested that the costs could reach "if not tens of billions of dollars".

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