July 26, 2017

Hurricane Ike status report: electrical power is cool

Today, we checked out the house, again, and lo and behold, it finally has power again!  Huzzah!

All in all, it hasn’t been that bad for us.  We crashed with friends, ate out all the time, and (thankfully) had daycare for our daughter as of Thursday last week.  Indeed, I’m seeing fewer people’s kids around the office this week and more people seem to be getting back into the groove.

Even though Rice wanted classes to restart on Tuesday of last week, the unstated unofficial everybody-get-back-to-work day was really yesterday, Monday, just over a week after the hurricane.  What’s the status of the city?

Many people are still without power, and the power crews are now dealing with harder cases, individually damaged lines, and so forth.  Getting the rest of the city online may well take a good long time.  Another interesting effect is that the rush-hour traffic is beyond insane.  Luckily, our daily commute is short enough that we’re largely immute to this, but traffic lights which reset to blinking red are slowing down everything, to the point that remote freeway exits are backing up into the freeways due to the malfunctioning traffic lights at the intersections below.  The Chron estimates it could be until November until all the traffic lights are repaired.  Ouch.

Naturally, one of the tempting purchases for us is some kind of natural gas powered, permanently installed generator.  I’m sure if I shop around for one now, I’d pay a mint to get it.  Maybe in the off season… Needless to say, I don’t see the city investing to bury all the power lines that run above ground.  They have legitimately higher priorities.  As to me, I sure would have been happy to have had power all the way through this thing, brought to us by the one utility that never had any downtime: our natural gas line.

[Sidebar: it takes a major power outage for you to really appreciate how people got by in the days before electrical power.  Pickling, preserving, and other techniques suddenly seem awfully clever.  Some candles put out an awful lot more light than others.  You can also see why it was a standard architectural feature of old Southern homes to have big outdoor porches — so you’d have somewhere slightly cooler to sleep than indoors.]

Hurricane Ike status report

Many people have been emailing me to send their best wishes. I thought it would be helpful to post a brief note on what happened and where we’re all at.

As you know, Hurricane Ike hit shore early Saturday morning. The wind, combined with a massive storm surge, caused staggering devastation along the Texas coast. Houston is further inland, so the big issue for us was and still is fallen trees and downed power lines. Rice University, as a result of what must have been a huge amount of advance effort, came through with flying colors. They had power and a working network pretty much the whole time. They didn’t have any water pressure for a while, but that came online Monday. Our main data center, built recently with an explicit goal of surviving events like this, apparently lost power for a while, at least in part. (I don’t have the full story yet. I do know that a failed DNS server caused our email server to experience problems.)

Our own house had no particular damage, although the back fence came down. We still have no power, but we’ve had water pressure (initially low, now fine) and natural gas the whole time. The hardwired telephone had a few outages, but continues to work reliably. Cellular phones were initially dicey but are now working great.

Luckily, the weather has been unseasonably cool, so we and all our neighbors have been leaving windows open. Over the weekend, the highs are in the mid 80’s (28-30C), with cooler weather at night, so we’ll do okay on that front. At this point, many restaurants are open, so the lack of power doesn’t mean living off canned food. Likewise, some gas stations and supermarkets are coming online again. Life, at least in this part of the city, is starting to resemble normality.

A looming concern is mosquitos. After Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 (see my photos), the big issue was clearly mosquitos. Lots of rain means lots of standing water, and that means mosquitos are on their way. Back then, few people lost power. This time, it’s going to get ugly.

Rice had a full faculty meeting on Tuesday morning. Our president announced that we would be resuming classes on Tuesday afternoon, but we could not have any assignments due or exams given this week. Last night, we got an email saying that everybody has made assignments due Monday next week, and that we needed do something else (without saying what). Apparently, there’s been an outpouring, among our students, of interest in volunteering to help the community (a good thing!), and I’d certainly like our students to get out and help. But if we’re supposed to get back to teaching, then that means work. I’m not sure how we’ll ultimately resolve this.

Unscientific data: our president asked for a show of hands at the meeting. How many faculty had no power? Maybe 90%. How many faculty had no daycare for their kids? Maybe 80%. How many faculty had significant damage to their homes? Maybe 20%.

For any of you who want to see what I saw, I took a bunch of pictures.

Meanwhile, I need to get back to work myself. We’ve got a research paper due Friday. Life goes on.

On digital TV and natural disasters

As I’m writing this, the eye of Hurricane Ike is roughly ten hours from landfall.  The weather here, maybe 60 miles inland, is overcast with mild wind.  Meanwhile, the storm surge has already knocked out power for ten thousand homes along the coast, claims the TV news, humming along in the background as I write this, which brings me to a thought.

Next year, analog TV gets turned off, and it’s digital or nothing.  Well, what happens in bad weather?  Analog TV degrades somewhat, but is still watchable.  Digital TV works great until it starts getting uncorrectable errors.  There’s a brief period where you see block reconstruction errors and, with even a mild additional amount of error, it’s just unwatchable garbage.  According to AntennaWeb, most of the terrestrial broadcast towers are maybe ten miles from my house, but that’s ten miles closer to the coast.  However, I get TV from Comcast, my local cable TV provider.  As I’ve watched the HD feed today, it’s been spotty.  Good for a while, unwatchable for a while.  The analog feed, which we also get on a different channel, has been spot on the whole time.

From this, it would appear that Comcast is getting its feed out of the air, and thus has all the same sorts of weather effects that I would have if I bothered to put my own antenna on the roof.  Next year, when the next hurricane is bearing down on the coast, and digital TV is the only TV around, it’s an interesting question whether I’ll get something useful on my TV during a disaster.  Dear Comcast, Engineering Department: please get a hard line between you and each of the local major TV stations.  Better yet, get two of them, each, and make sure they don’t share any telephone poles.

[Sidebar: In my old house, I used DirecTV plus a terrestrial antenna for HD locals, run through a DirecTV-branded HD TiVo.  Now, I’m getting everything from Comcast, over telephone poles, into a (series 3) TiVo-HD.  In any meaningful disaster, the telephone poles are likely to go down, taking out my TV source material. I get power and telephone from the same poles, so to some extent, they make a single point of failure, and thus no meaningful benefit from putting up my own antenna.

Once the storm gets closer, I’ll be moving the UPS from my computer to our, umm, shelter-in-place location.  I don’t expect I’d want to waste precious UPS battery power running my power-hungry television set.  Instead, I’ve got an AM/FM portable radio that runs on two AA’s.  Hopefully, the amount of useful information on the radio will be better than the man-on-the-street TV newscasters, interviewing fools standing along the ocean, watching the pretty waves breaking.  Hint: you can’t “ride through” a storm when the water is ten feet over your head.]