Miscellaneous Ramblings

Of Hurricanes and Lightning Storms and Dial-up Internet and Laptops

Charles Moore - 2010.09.13 - Tip Jar

If you've noticed that my LEM contributions have been a bit light recently, the reason is that I've been a bit preoccupied by events beyond my control.

Hurricane Earl, which came ashore on September 4 about 200 miles to the east of me, could've been worse - in my neck of Nova Scotia at least. The note of late forecast optimism that Earl would track farther north and dissipate somewhat by hitting the colder, 16°C waters of the Bay of Fundy evaporated Saturday morning when the storm took a jink to the eastward where offshore water temperature was reportedly 21° C. Earl's massive breadth meant it looked like we would get a thumping here after all.

We had things pretty well battened down, and at 1:00 p.m. - just before the storm peaked here - we still had power, could watch TV news updates, and were becoming a little bit hopeful that maybe the power wouldn't go off after all. Then a particularly strong gust hit, and the power quit.

Okay, that was how it was going to be. We were prepared. Our water is gravity fed, which is a great blessing in power outages. Cooking is possible on a propane camp stove. We have lots of flashlights with spare batteries on hand, a freshly charged 12 volt power pack, and a small gasoline generator that can alternately keep the refrigerator and freezer running or power lights, small appliances, and even the TV. Not the most convenient, but as long as the gas (both kinds) held out, we would be reasonably comfortable.

Power to my wireless broadband service tower was out, but I could still log on to the Internet by logging on to a friend's dial-up account (I have her permission for emergencies).

My storm-tourist daughter and I spent Saturday afternoon, which was the height of the storm, working on my truck out in the garage, intermittently venturing out to shore up woodpile tarp tie-downs and the like. It was certainly windy, but we've had worse here, as recently as last winter, and we sustained no damage to the house or outbuildings.

The wind had died down by suppertime, and we anticipated that the power would be back on by Sunday morning latest. A call to Nova Scotia Power's outage line put that to rest, with estimated time of restoration tentatively predicted at 11:30 p.m. Sunday.

Then the telephone died.

To the best of my recollection, we've never before lost phone (and therefore dial-up Internet) service in any of the depressingly many power interruptions we've had here over the past 15 years or so. However, on a trip to the local telco's switching substation, we were greeted by dead silence rather than the usual hum and whir of cooling fans. The prevailing theory locally was that the station's backup battery had lasted only about 12 hours before running dead. I don't know how accurate that hypothesis was, but it sounded plausible.

The double-whammy of losing both power and the phone made it more difficult to remain philosophical and patient (my daughter's iPhone wouldn't work here either, as Rogers Wireless, Apple's Canadian service provider partner, cell and GSM service peters out about 35 miles north of here). So it was a psychological boost at least when the phone returned late Sunday evening, as we hunkered down for our second night with no power, the hot water tank depleted, and cooking on just two burners getting tedious.

Camp stove sized propane canisters last a dismayingly short time when you're doing serious cooking, even for two, making tea and coffee, and so forth. We didn't run out, but we were down to our last reserve canister at the end of two days. We don't barbecue, but some way to feed the camp stove from a 20 pound barbecue propane cylinder would be more economic.

Our little Chinese-made two-cycle gasoline generator is pretty parsimonious of fuel, getting about six hours runtime from a four-litre tankful, but we needed to refill our two-gallon gas can at the local convenience store (also running on a generator) Sunday morning, even with shutting our genny off overnight to conserve fuel. Memo to self: Get a bigger gas can.

I finally connected with a real human being at Nova Scotia Power on Monday morning and was told that the best guesstimate for restoration would be 6 p.m. that day. I was assured that repair crews were on the case, but that sparsely populated areas like ours are a lower priority, which is I suppose rational, but not especially encouraging. Consequently, it was a relief when the power came back on around 1:00 p.m., making the outage just about 48 hours over three calendar days.

I don't want to over-dramatize these relatively minor "hardships". Folks to the west of us suffered substantial property damage from Earl, and one man lost his life trying to secure a runaway boat. However, the truly frustrating thing about this episode in our local context is that, as noted, while it was severe weather, Earl didn't seem to be a catastrophically bad storm here. Neither we, nor any of the neighbors I canvassed, experienced any significant property damage. While a power interruption was gloomily anticipated based on recent history, 48 hours seems disproportionately long given the magnitude of the blow we received here, especially when other rural areas that got hit harder by the hurricane had theirs restored sooner. The roughly 20 hour telephone outage added insult to injury. However we were relatively fortunate. Some folks had no power for five days.

Most people in this corner of the woods have portable generators now, while nobody did 20 years ago. Long power outages used to be a rarity, but over the past decade or so they became monotonously common. My uncle next door has a 3000 W Honda generator that connects to the main house circuits, which I expect is very convenient. Our little 880 W generator is much more modest, but it made the difference between having all the food in the refrigerator and freezer ruined and sitting around in the dark. I think the ideal would be a propane or natural gas fueled generator that would cut in automatically when the power failed.

Anyway, the circumstances weren't conducive to writing productivity over the long weekend, and nature wasn't through with us yet. I had hoped for at least a couple of weeks of unexciting weather, but it was not to be.

Wednesday evening a series of thunder and lightning storms rolled through. I was not feeling well, having developed four degrees of fever throughout that evening, cause as yet unexplained since I didn't and don't have any cold or flu symptoms. Anyway, I was in substantial pain with the fever and not paying much attention to the weather, but vaguely registered some thunderclaps rolling by. I lay down for a bit around midnight with the intent of getting up to do some work later, but woke up at 12:30 in the dark.

Another power outage. Oh joy.

Around two o'clock, the thunder and lightning really socked in, and we experienced violent weather with cells of torrential rain for about an hour and a half. We had some close lightning strikes. One sounded like it hit out in the backyard. I dragged myself out of bed to unplug computers and appliances, hoping I had not left it too long. The phone stayed working this time, so I called NSP's outage line and the recording told me that yes indeed there was a power outage affecting my area, with an estimated tower restoration of 2 a.m. By two o'clock, that had been bumped forward to four o'clock, then 10 a.m. Thursday, and by 8 a.m. they were saying 4:30 Thursday afternoon. That was too long to leave the refrigerator and freezer, so I dragged out the generator and the long extension cords again and fired it up.

I also discovered that even though my MacBook had been unplugged during the worst of the lightning event, static electricity in the air must have woken it up, so the battery was stone cold dead. I plugged it in as well to recharge. I worked through the morning and early afternoon on one of my old Pismo PowerBooks that gets about six hours runtime on an extended life battery. The battery had just died as the power came back on at 1:30.

However, it seems that one of the lightning strikes must have damaged the wireless broadband modem at the antenna on the roof, which looks fine, but refuses to work. I called the ISP's tech support, and they told me helpfully that my modem wasn't working and that they would have to send out a service representative, who will not come until next week sometime. That wasn't acceptable, so I resignedly signed up for my own dialup account again, my needs now exceeding short-term emergency status.

Back using dial-up for production, I can't believe how slow it is after a year with broadband, but it's a lot better than no Internet at all. At least the damaged modem belongs to the ISP and not to me.

So that's how things stand. More thunderstorms possible in the forecast. I'll get to the bulging mailbag eventually. This chain of events has further solidified my conviction that laptop computers are the way to go and renewed my appreciation for the reliability of good old hard-wired dial-up Internet, despite the glacial speed, and for the anvil-like dependability of Pismos in particular.

Update: I got broadband wireless back Monday around I:00 p.m. when the service representative showed up and replaced the 24 volt AC power brick for the antenna modem on the roof. The antenna and modem themselves seem to have survived unscathed.

Had I not been feeling quite ill the night of the lightning storm (I was in bed, sleepy at 2:00 a.m. and with four degrees of fever at the time), I would have had the presence of mind to unplug the modem and router rather than stupidly just turning off the power bar, which is pretty useless in a lightning strike. However, it's interesting that the router plugged into the same power bar (which is indoors), and its power brick survived, so the only casualty was the modem's brick.

Anyway, it's a relief to have broadband back, but I'm not going to cancel my new dial-up account at least until hurricane season is over. As I type this, Hurricane Igor and Tropical Storm Julia are churning their way in this general direction. Sigh.

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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