The Thinker: Rich Galen


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Mullings by Rich Galen
An American Cyber-Column By Rich Galen
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Four Words After the Storm

Rich Galen

Monday July 2, 2012


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  • Over the past four days, the high temperators in Northern Virginia have been 96, 104, 97, and 99 for a total of 396 degrees which, I know, is not terribly instructive.

  • But, the average of 99 is.

  • For those of you who do not live along a 600 mile line from Indiana to Maryland might not have been aware of a storm known as a "derecho" (which is Spanish for "straight") that slammed through that entire distance in just 10 hours Friday.

  • The derecho that slammed into the National Capital region at about 10:30 Friday night was packing winds that topped out at well-over hurricane force left about 1.2 million people without power; knocked 911 service to at least two high-density counties off line; stalled the DC-area Metro as 3rd rails lost power, and reduced cell service to a series of fast-busy signals until Saturday night. At least six people were killed in Virginia, mostly by falling trees.

  • My brother- and sister-in-law live in Fairfax County, Virginia - about 12 miles west of the District. A tree did fall on their house, they did lose power, they did not have phone service to their home, and their cell service was as unavailable as was everyone else's.

  • In short: They were officially off-the-grid.

  • I didn't understand why their home phone didn't work, but I thought it was because they have cordless phones. When the base station lost power, there was no radio to forward a signal to the hand-held phones.

  • That was true - because I tested the theory on our hand held system by simply unplugging the base then attempting to place a call - but it wasn't the only reason. They have a cable, internet, and phone bundle from their cable provider. The cable was out and so were the phone and internet.

  • Without cell service, they couldn't switch to that system to gain access to the outside world on their smartphones or iPad.

  • Next time I hear one of those 187 per-day Magic Jack commercials I'm going to call and ask what happens when the cable goes out.

  • By about 7 PM Saturday night their power (and AC) had come back, but the cable (and phone service) had not. The cell companies got service back up by Saturday afternoon, at least in our area. Many people have been informed it may be as long as a week before their power is restored.

  • Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley pointed out correctly that this derecho did as much damage as a hurricane or a major snow storm but unlike those weather events there were not many days advance warning to pre-position repair equipment, but only a matter of a few hours.

  • On Saturday morning, I went out looking to see what tree damage was visible in the 'hood and ended up at the Safeway only to find long lines of people buying ice and bottled water. They had no power for their refrigerators and there were announced problems with the water supply because the pumps in many areas had gone off line.

  • I had had no idea, up to that point, how lucky we were to have maintained our 21st century niceties at Mullings Central.

  • It did lead me to wonder whether 'tis better to leave food in an unopened fridge in a power outage, or transfer it to coolers with ice.

  • The answer, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is found in a food safety briefing you can find on the Secret Decoder Ring page. It says, in part, that "the refrigerator will keep food safely cold for about 4 hours if it is unopened." Any longer and the USDA recommends you move food to coolers containing ice.

  • It also made me wonder about the future of the "smart grid" we are supposed to be so eagerly awaiting.

  • A fully integrated electrical grid will be vulnerable to computer hackers - private or government-sponsored. If losing power from a storm can be this disruptive to this many people, imagine what an organized attack would do to huge sections of the country.

  • All through the weekend strangers started conversations with the same four words, "Do you have power?"

  • It was a good reminder that the distance between the 21st and 19th centuries is not nearly as far as we sometimes think it is.

  • On the Secret Decoder Ring today: A map and the official explanation of Friday's derecho from the WashPost and NOAA and that promised food safety issue brief from the USDA.

    Also a photo of the in-dash thermometer from Friday afternoon in Old Town Alexandria Virginia, and a Catchy Caption of the Day.

    -- END --

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