Mother Nature takes out the Northeast

Reflections on the fourth day without power, phones, or Internet.

It's 6:24 a.m. on Monday, December 15, 2008, as I write this. We're well into our fourth straight day without power, landlines, cable, and Internet. The thankfully constant whine of the 15kW generator is so present as to nearly disappear, yet its absence is immediately noticeable when it stops due to oil consumption, which is becoming more frequent the longer it runs.

Few of my neighbors are so fortunate. There aren't many of us on this dead-end stretch of road in the woods of southern New Hampshire, and at most have had to try to drain their water and heating system and abandon their houses -- the two others are getting by, sleeping around a central wood stove, hoping their pipes aren't freezing. From what I understand, there are still hundreds of thousands of families going through the same situation. We've brought water and coffee around, offering showers and so forth, trying to get by. Cell phones work only sporadically since most of the cell towers are still out as well. Temperatures are finally climbing past 20 degrees Fahrenheit, but were hovering around 5 degrees for the past few days. It's very cold.

Driving on the main highways is like taking a trip though a fun house. On a 30-mile trip the other day, I saw at least 50 separate sections of power lines pulled down by ice covered trees. The roadsides are littered with debris from the trees cleared by the state crews. In places, it looks like boxes of massively oversized toothpicks were dropped and scattered around the land.

My lab is completely down and is suddenly a mausoleum. Hulks of high-end server, storage, and network equipment sit in their racks, cold, idle. The lights don't blink, the disks don't spin, and the bits do not pass. In a normal situation, the lab would have stayed running in some capacity. I would have shut down the heaviest power consumers and kept the lab infrastructure running, but not for this long. Not with the sudden scarcity and inflated cost of propane. There's something extremely discomfiting about it; for years it has constantly been busy and full of noise and energy. This extended silence is chilling.

The generator is LP-powered and was running from a single 120-gallon tank that was perhaps 60 percent full when the storm came through. That lasted for nearly 60 hours, and repeated calls to my gas company elicited no promises of a refill. I called them when I was nearly out and they told me that they "didn't think they had any more propane" and hung up on me.

Most propane storage tanks on private property are actually owned by the gas company, not the property owner. I finally had another company come to refill my tanks only to be refused delivery, with 800 gallons of LP sitting in the truck, 10 feet from my nearly-empty tank. It's illegal for a gas company to fill another company's tanks; apparently that trumps an official state of emergency situation.

Without another choice, I paid $700 for them to swap my tank for theirs on a Sunday afternoon, somewhat above market value. The generator finally exhausted all the fuel in my original tank while we were wrestling the new one into position. I figure that I can run for another few days at this burn rate, and luckily I have four quarts of 15W-40 left to keep feeding the generator.

My e-mail and locally-hosted domains are down, and we're fast approaching the time where queued mail begins to be discarded. I'm going to be pushing as much as I can through other boxes and work to reroute as many services as possible, but I have to travel into town to do so since all my Internet circuits are down and will likely remain so for quite some time. Without even reliable cell service, we have no real access to news or other information. I understand that Bush was dodging shoes the other day or something.

With any luck, we'll have power back today, or tomorrow, or maybe this week. Hopefully. The power companies really don't appear to know when. The power is on just a few miles down the road, and in places as close as 5 miles away the power never went off. Fickle.

Every passing hour this feels more like something you'd see on TV and less like reality. Schools are being used as emergency shelters and classes cancelled. Nobody can remember it ever being this bad, no matter how far back they can recall. Thousands of homes may be uninhabitable through Christmas.

But in the end, we're New Englanders. We'll make it, if only so we can tell the stories after it's all over and compare new storms to the one that dumped over five inches of freezing rain on us in a day. After all, it's not even winter yet, technically speaking.

Until then, I'll be subconsciously listening for the generator whine to cease, checking the oil, and waiting.

UPDATE 1:10PM EST:

FairPoint Communications (née Verizon) parked a generator truck next to the SLIC that serves my road. The phones are up, as well as my backup DSL circuit. Also, Unicel has apparently managed to get another tower back online, and the cellphones now work.

Still no power and my main circuits are down. Also, my generator has been running for somewhere around 85 straight hours and needs adjustment -- it's putting out 130v, which is causing my battery backups all kinds of grief, even on the lowest sensitivity settings.

Still, things are looking up, at least a little.

UPDATE, 5:40PM EST:

Just had my brand-new gas company fill up my LP tanks. I figure at the current generator load rate I'm good for 84 to 96 hours, maybe a little more. That's assuming the generator continues to run. It's a previous-generation Guardian 15kW unit with a 1-liter, air-cooled engine and it's been a lifesaver so far.

Aside from one neighbor, we're the only ones left out here. At least the FairPoint genny truck hasn't run out of fuel yet. When that happens, the phones and Internet go kaput. Hmmm. Even then, now that the cell tower is up, I can drop my SIM card into my Nokia N95 (yes, I still have it) and tether through EDGE for some 20Kbps latency-laden Internet access.

The geek shall prevail.

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