Tips from Hurricane Irene blackout zone: Coffee shops, crowds, crazed commuters

Telecommuting is trickier than it looks from disaster zones, especially when the power is out

Though its impact was less intense that TV weather casters predicted, Hurricane Irene still did a lot of damage, including 29 deaths, billions worth of damage from wind and floods and, most significantly for the greatest number, knocking out power for millions of people up the East coast as far north of Montreal.

Most of those people don't have the luxury of staying home to clean up after the storm. Most had to go to work today, though the lucky ones did it virtually. They found out working from a blackout zone isn't as easy as working from the road. It's more like being one of the zombies in a horror movie -- trying to get your share of brains while all the other ghouls try to elbow you aside, not always with their own elbows.

There are some ways to get ahead of the crowd, though.

Tips for working from the blackout zone:

  • Go ahead and feel relieved the storm wasn't as bad as it was supposed to be.
  • Don't worry that having all your power out for days, feels like an actual disaster. It's just annoying, not a catastrophe, but it's your disaster and you get to own it. Just like the weathercasters who overpitched the hurricane and left most of the East Coast feeling bruised from the weather and disappointed by it at the same time.
  • Telecommute. Especially if you have anyone at home who would have an easier time with you around. Days without power is a legitimate problem – not a disaster, not an emergency in which every second counts, but a legitimate crisis you should be around to help solve.
  • Realize that you're not alone. That's not a statement of unity, it's a warning. When the power is out, a whole class of knowledge worker – most of them fully equipped to work from home or the road – are adrift. They can't work from home because there's no power and batteries die. They can't work from the same wifi hot spots as everyone else because there's not enough bandwidth or chairs. They stumble blindly, following rumors of better power or bandwidth. Bandwidth, you'll find the crowd, taking all the good tables, saturating the wifi. It's not like a sick day when you're the only one out. Everyone is out.Using up your wifi.
  • Coffee shops are the first option for wifi access and a comfortable environment, but they come with caveats:
  • If you're trying to get online early, like 5 a.m., the only places open serve a lot of "coffee, regular," (milk, two sugars) to guys picking up breakfast for the guys at the job site and not a lot of macchiato. Few have wifi.
  • The wired places open at 7 or 8 and charge twice as much for coffee that tastes exactly the same, but the muffins are a lot better.
  • Wifi cafes aren't braced for the influx of a semi-permanent population of power-outage refugees, who fill up the workspaces, then the "relax" spaces, then spill out onto tables on the sidewalk, where the signal is weaker and sunlight washes out text on their screens.
  • Informal brokerages open as financial-services people grow bored with complaining in loud whispers at the speed of overcrowded wifi and start making deals for whatever assets are closest to hand.
  • The best seats (away from the door, at a table, near a power outlet and the coffee-pickup spot) are available for money or favors ("Anyone have a three-prong adapter?"). Soon the smart money gives up on the squishy chairs that hurt your lower back after an hour of typing, and move to the upright chairs at small tables down the narrow hall leading to the bathroom. Bathroom access is key.
  • As the morning not-a-commute goes long, baristas get more bitter. They're too young to imagine anyone not having anything better to do than go to work, so they have no sympathy for you. And they want you out of their shop so they can go back to making fun of you and hit on each other. Luckily their humphs and glares are no more effective than the ones you've become immune to in your own teenager or crowds in airports wishing you'd give up the choice spot on the floor, leaning against a column with a power outlet right next to you. Forget them; they'll learn to deal or their batteries will die. It's the law of the jungle.
  • Cell networks are a second option, for phone calls and tethered access. With a me-fi connection, all you need is a power plug. Cell nets are just as vulnerable to hurricanes as anything else. If a couple of towers are out from the blackout or storm damage, the cell you settle in could run out of bandwidth quickly. Keep an eye on your bars; if you disconnect more than a couple of times in an hour, move on.
  • After 10 a.m. the crowds stream to libraries, blessing Ben Franklin for free access to more good seats, lots of power outlets and blessed quiet.
  • By 10:40 "server is not responding." Library WLANs weren't designed to keep up with a couple of hundred road warriors at a time. Email and text messaging works because they can download data and stop.
  • Browsing or anything that needs constant connections and work like a dream even on tethered cells or other low-bandwidth connections turn into frozen honey. Nothing digital moves without a long wait.
  • Eventually Librarians become testy and dangerous. If they wanted to stand at a desk and answer the same question over and over again for increasingly annoyed customers they'd work airline check-in counters. They don't really appreciate the innovative thinking behind calling the front desk on your cell when you're at the back of the line, just in case you can reserve a desk or wired connection or something. Customer-service people at the airport don't like that, either, but they're trained not to overreact. A librarian will keep trying to seem helpful right up to the second before it becomes necessary to kill someone with a staple-binder.
  • Try not to be that person.
  • When it's time to flee the library, try bookstore/coffee shops. Their bandwidth is higher and there are fewer seats than the commute'roid shops. By the time you're done with the library, the first couple of waves will have filtered through the bookshop and a couple of squishy chairs will be open. All the good pastry will be gone.
  • Don't push things too far. If you've been hop-scotching around the no-power zone all day to keep ahead of the crowds, you've spent more time looking for wifi than you have working. Don't make the ratio worse. Go home.
  • Sign your cell phone up as a me-fi station and tomorrow work from someplace you can get a working plug and cell connection. The cell net may be saturated off and on, but it's more reliable than a wifi source saturated by waves of other virtual telecommuters.
  • Bring hot food home. You'll appreciate it when you get there and so will whoever you left behind. If it's a pet, bring a doggie bag. If it's an adult, bring soup or coffee. Or hot ice cream. Anything that's a temperature they couldn't get at home without a barbecue or having the power back on.

It won't take as long as you think.

Read more of Kevin Fogarty's CoreIT blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Follow Kevin on Twitter at @KevinFogarty. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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