Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Irene Is Coming, Bringing Likely Disruptions to Power, Phones and Internet

If you want to make some quick money today, you can stock up on D- and C-cell batteries and flashlights and sell them on a street corner in Manhattan, because many stores are sold out.

Yes, New York and much of the Eastern seaboard is preparing for a direct hit from Hurricane Irene, which is being described locally as as a “once-in-a-lifetime” type of hurricane that hits all the populated coastal areas rather than skirting them.

Mayor Mike Bloomberg just announced mandatory evacuations for areas of the city that are most likely to be flooded, which affects more than a quarter-million people. Subway trains, buses, as well as the Long Island Railroad and Metro North rail service are all scheduled to shut down tomorrow at noon.

Many New Yorkers, myself among them, are either getting out of the city or hunkering down. Last night I stocked up on new flashlights and a few of those huge packages of batteries that tend to last for years. As much faith as we have in Con Edison and other regional power companies who keeps the lights on, they’re warning of possible outages.

Phones, wireless, and Internet infrastructure are likely to take a hit too up and down the East Coast. I checked in with several companies to see what they’re saying about their ability to keep services turned on so that people in affected areas can stay informed and communicate with loved ones.

If the power goes out, and if you haven’t done away completely with your old-school telephone line, now would be the time to make sure you have an old-school corded phone around the house. If your home loses power, the phone lines will keep running. The phone networks’ central offices and switching stations have backup power to keep the dial tone on. However, if you have a cordless phone you’re out of luck. Best to spring for an old-style corded phone if you don’t have one lying around.

If you’re wireless-only, you have a pretty good chance of being able to make calls. I checked in with Verizon Wireless, AT&T and T-Mobile today. As with the central offices on the wireline network, wireless towers have backup power too. All carriers said their teams were fanning out across the region topping off the fuel tanks of backup generators and readying mobile cell sites that can be deployed quickly where needed.

I remember my BlackBerry kept running during the Northeast Blackout of 2003. I was able to contact friends outside the blackout zone to get news stories about what was going on. That is, until my BlackBerry’s battery ran out. Have extra batteries and even an extra phone charged up and ready, and make sure your phone stays dry. All the carriers are advising that you save your power for emergency calls and use text messaging to minimize network congestion. Remember that it was network congestion that ground the wireless networks to a halt after the earthquake on Tuesday. (It felt so strange to type that. Suddenly I feel like I’m a character in a Left Behind novel.)

So what about the Internet? Customers of Verizon FIOS know that even if the power goes out, their modems have an eight-hour backup to keep the bits flowing and the dial-tone on for phone service, but not the Internet. Time Warner Cable, which serves about 6 million people from the Carolinas to New England, has deployed Business Recovery Unit trailers up and down the coast to quickly restore service to affected areas.

All that is great news for connections at home. What about critical services for businesses? As we saw in April when it crashed for a few days, Amazon Web Services is pretty critical for several companies. The company has data centers in Northern Virginia that are close enough to Irene’s path to make customers nervous. Geekwire noticed a message on a support forum advising customers to make sure they’re running applications in more than one data center. “We are monitoring Hurricane Irene and making all possible preparations, e.g. generator fuel, food/water, flashlights, radios, extra staff,” the message said.

And what about Monday morning? In New York, the big question is whether the markets will open on time. After 9/11, the New York Stock Exchange closed from the time of the attacks (Sept. 11, 2001, was a Tuesday) through the end of the week. Trading reopened the following Monday, Sept. 17. If the market did fail to open Monday, it would be the first time such a closure was forced on the exchange by external forces since then. The last time a hurricane shut down financial markets was in September of 1985, during Hurricane Gloria.

Reuters is reporting that staffers at the big board were laying in a supply of fuel for backup power generators located above the trading floor, as well as a supply of food. A final decision about whether or not to open as usual will be made Saturday or Sunday as circumstances warrant.

The hurricane’s name, of course, can’t help but conjure up thoughts of “Goodnight, Irene,” the early 20th century folk standard that seems to close every third or fourth installment of Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” radio show, the lyrics of which have been running through my head all day. The folks at The Awl have collected 23 different versions of the song performed by artists as varied as Willie Nelson, Eric Clapton and The Meat Puppets. If you’d care to have the same lyrics in your own head while you rush your own hurricane preparations to completion, you can enjoy the Lead Belly version I’ve embedded below. Everyone stay safe.


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