The importance of electricity during a disaster

Access to electricity and battery life became two crucial factors for those armed with devices during Hurricane Sandy. The whole disaster revealed that in the age of devices its now even more important to keep a power supply running during an emergency.

Preparing for Sandy’s imminent arrival, I didn’t fill up any bathtubs with water, but I did charge up all the phones, tablets, and MiFis in the house. Frankenstorm didn’t end up having a huge impact on my part of the country, and we never suffered a prolonged power outage.  My son, holed up in his dorm at what is currently a very quiet university, has gone 14 hours without power.  I suggested that it looked like he’d have an additional 2 days this week to study.  He reminded me that all of his text books are digital.

Under pressure to reduce the weight and volume of printed matter in the house, I’ve been experimenting with eBooks on my iPad.  Assured that I’ll love reading books electronically—once I get used to it—I’m still trying to figure out how to change the colour of the highlighting.  I miss all those colourful Post-It tabs sticking out the sides of the pages.  Digital format seems like a great way to read things that you’ll throw away, like beach novels and magazines, but the annotation mechanisms are still weak, and the aesthetic satisfaction of a crowded bookshelf is totally missing.

Recognising the convenience of being able to stuff multiple books and magazines, not to mention thousands of podcasts, into a single slim device, I’m ready for an upcoming multi-day trip. Even if I get delayed by weather, I should still have plenty to read. While my battery lasts.  In many ways, the digital option is a lot more convenient, but it’s dependent upon external power. I wonder how many people Sandy has trapped between a tablet and an empty battery?

While it is way too early to begin collecting continuity and recovery lessons from Sandy’s aftermath, the fact that only one hospital outage has been reported, suggests that a lot of emergency power systems worked very well last night.  NYU’s Langone Medical Centre lost power last night (and less dramatically, Coney Island Hospital’s), and several sources today have reported that not only did the backup power fail, but also the backup to the backup.  Back in June (the other ‘storm of the century’ earlier this year, not to be confused with last year’s storm of the century), Amazon experienced a similar failure when a single incident took both utility substations offline, followed by an overheated generator, and then a failure due to the misconfiguration of the secondary backup.

Anyone who has spent significant time dealing with data centres, or any other critical system, likely has multiple war stories about failed power. It’s a mundane but important topic.  Microsoft has been bemoaning the lack of researchers, developers, and engineers, but maybe what we really need are more mechanics and electricians.

Jay Heiser is a research vice president specializing in the areas of IT risk management and compliance, security policy and organization, forensics, and investigation. You can read his other posts here.

Related Articles