Someone in Microsoft’s back yard must have really made her mad, and we’re still feeling her wrath. I thought the snowstorm two weeks ago was bad, but this is worse. Thursday night, hurricane-strength winds and rain ripped through Oregon and Washington, toppling trees, causing floods, and leaving millions without power. Power at the Microsoft campus came back on throughout the day today, but the majority of employees here are still without power at their homes.
More that half a million people in the primary residential areas of Issaquah, Bellevue, and Sammamish are still without power, and it will be freezing again tonight. Now that I’ve got survival (and even Internet access) handled, here are some raw notes.
We got the first warning early Thursday afternoon, when the following e-mail from an employee was sent round:
“My father is the Director of Emergency Management of Pierce County. He called to tell me that for the first time in his career the National Weather Service called all county Emergency Directors in Western Washington to warn them of the winds coming this Thursday night into Friday afternoon. By all indications; this system seems to be one of the worst that Western Washington has seen. Much like the Inaugural day storm. It currently looks to hit the entire Puget Sound region, especially bad for the folks in the North West. He said to be prepared for power outages for several days”
The snowstorm two weeks ago was a good thing. People took this one seriously. All of the new hires from California had a new respect for Seattle’s “Momma Nature”. It’s a good thing.
By the time I headed home, trees were already falling, and the commute took a couple of hours due to traffic lights being out and serious flooding. The flooding was surreal; we are at fairly high elevation. In fact, while discussing the “meteor tsunami” reports with a friend recently, we both decided that a 60-foot tsunami wouldn’t be enough to flood our area. It turns out all that’s needed is 1 inch of rainfall in a 45-minute period; something that would have been quite common in the wake of a meteor tsunami.
Shortly after I got home at 8PM, power at my house went out. We recently chopped down two dying trees from the greenbelt near my house; which certainly would have come down in the wind. So we were fortunate — only one large branch from a healthy tree came down and damaged my deck and siding. At least one person died when a tree fell on their car Thursday night, and a couple of people died in their homes from flooding and tree falls.
Morning is when things got interesting. Nobody had power (1.5 million out of power in the greater Seattle area), so nobody was getting news. No home phone service, no cable TV, poor or nonexistent cellular coverage in many places, no Internet. The news crews didn’t have any news anyway, since they couldn’t get anywhere to talk to people. All of the traffic signals were out, and all of the cameras and sensors were down, so the radio stations were just guessing wildly about traffic conditions.
Since nobody knew the true extent of the situation, everyone assumed that they could drive somewhere nearby to get power, gas, and supplies. From 8AM to 5PM it was total gridlock. The gridlock was *way* worse than during the snowstorm. There were many reports of people looting, and police had to be called out to calm tempers at gas stations where people got into fights. Downtown Seattle escaped most of the power outages, so when I escaped to the W Hotel downtown for an hour meeting with partners at midday Friday, the news reports from the east side seemed surreal. But by the end of the day, I-5 was as bad as I-405, and it became clear that the damage extended a lot further than people thought. I saw huge lines and tempers flare at the gas station at Chinatown, which is about as far from the eastside blackout as you can get.
By the end of the day, it was clear that nobody was getting their power back, and the temperatures were going to drop below freezing. All of the hotels for miles around were sold out, and people were hoarding firewood (long gone) in the hopes that they could keep the temperatures inside their houses from dipping below freezing. By this time, most radio stations had switched to “neighbor to neighbor” format — people would just call in with reports, rumors, offers of assistance, and so on. All of the local emergency services were overloaded, so the county was originally telling people to go to homeless shelters. The emergency assistance line was overloaded and has been telling people to call back on Monday. People have been sharing their homes and facilities, and late into the night the red cross was finally able to open up some shelters.
This morning, the street outside my house was a smooth sheet of ice; the draining water made a nice sheet that froze overnight. But the roads were much better. Everyone has figured out how to function in the new situation, and the news crews are getting better information out. The picture they paint isn’t pretty:
- They interviewed some guy who is sclaping on gas in Sammamish (near Microsoft). Around 4PM today, he was selling gas for $15/gallon, and sold out quickly. He explains that he just stands by the road with a $25/gallon sign while people wait in line at the gas station. As soon as the gas station runs out (as it quickly does), he lowers the price and sells to the mob. Apparently these people don’t know that there is plenty of gas elsewhere by now.
- Many people had generators stolen. The thieves listen for the generator sound, and then come take it whether you’re there or not. They can sell them back very quickly. If you had a generator, you had only two strategies. First is to use it very sparingly, during midday, and hope nobody knows. The other is to turn your house into a 24-hour diner for all of the neighbors, and make sure there are lots of people in your house all the time. A few people took the latter approach and have become very popular in their neighborhoods.
- Hundreds of people were hospitalized from carbon monoxide poisoning. One hospital had a waiting list 100 people long at one period. Some are people who take their generator indoors; but the bulk are Somali and Vietnamese immigrants who took the charcoal grill inside. I haven’t heard all the details, but I can’t believe you would randomly have that number at that concentration just “by accident”. I wonder if there was a guy selling them grills claiming, “this’ll keep you warm”.
Tonight will be colder than last night, and many people have come to accept that it could be a couple more nights before they have heat. But people are actually being a lot more civil than they were before. Hotel rooms are still scarce/nonexistant, but the shelters are up and running and reported to have lots of room. And people have figured out how to function in the new reality.
The technology situation was interesting. Neither my wife nor I had cellular coverage from home. And my Moto Q firmware died Friday evening so I had to switch back to my Palm Treo 700w. SMS tended to work well to stay in touch and find places (SMS to shortcode wlive or googl). Trying to find t-mobile hotspots at Starbucks was a loser — most places with power still don’t have Internet access, so you can charge your phone or laptop but the laptop is useless for browsing the net. Once I got e-mail sync to the treo working again, it was great. But the most useful technology by far was Windows Live Search for Mobile. It took less than 5 minutes to install while sitting at Third Place Books this morning, and was invaluable throughout the day. When you’re stuck in traffic, and need to find nearby businesses, find alternate routes, it’s amazing. I actually prefer the UI to using a laptop now, and laptop was a non-option at most places anyway. It would be fairly trivial to add ability for people to take cameraphone photos of traffic conditions and send to the service to allow for a “crowd-sourced” way of implementing the new Honda “wing-mirror” cameras ideas.