A Tiny Taste of Jericho: Tech Grades After an Earthquake

by Todd Ogasawara

Glowstick Homes and other buildings shake violently not once but twice minutes apart on an otherwise quiet Sunday morning. Electricity is cut off 10 minutes later. The cell phone shows it has a signal from the cell tower but can't dial out for a voice call or get an EDGE data connection. The apparently lone surviving radio station plays a pre-recorded political panel discussion. No live human is on the air. The wireline phone still works but terminates to an all circuits busy message. Overhead, gray clouds roll over the valley.

An episode CBS' Jericho TV show? No, this was Hawaii between 7:07am and 8am on October 15. Since my part of the world was safe and sound after the rocking and rolling, it seemed like a good time to take stock of the tech available to me, figure out what works and what doesn't, and use what works to get by until things returned to normal (more or less). Here's what I found... I use a familiar A to F grading system.


Jack Dolby
2006-10-17 03:37:07
Todd, glad no one was hurt. We don't do earthquakes here (S.E. Virginia) but we do hurricanes (including a 70 foot oak tree falling on my house after Tropical Storm Charlie a couple of eyars ago.)

My longest "roughing it" was two weeks after the tree incident, with Hurricane Isabel coming in second at 10 days.

Its pretty amazing how well one can do without the wall-to-wall technology at times.

Since those two periods referenced above, we have had a few two-three days incidents and we almost laugh them off.

Here's hoping all gets back to normal for all the island folks real soon (and, yes, we count our blessings each hurricane season and, like others, are in tremendous awe of the folks like those in Louisianna and the Gulf coast... humans are pretty amazing creatures.)


2006-10-17 04:05:38
Ditto the F for T-Mo. Totally useless. But add to the list Apple's Hi-Fi which runs off a bunch of D batteries. Won't last forever, but if you and your friends want to sing along to... Cosi Fan Tutte...

Also add transistor radio. I had a hard time knowing what was going on. Would be neat to have one of those little radios that seem to work for a decade on the same set of AA Duracells. All I had was a RadioShark USB radio for my laptop. Really great until the batteries in your laptop run out...

Red wine. Drink at room temperature.

Instant coffee. Drink at room temperature.

2006-10-17 06:37:54
My guess is that the cellular networks are totally dependent upon grid power, unlike the wired telecom networks.

A pity that the FCC doesn't force the cellular companies to implement backup battery + solar cell panels on the towers in the cellular networks. In places like the southeastern coastal areas, where power is knocked out on a regular basis by hurricanes, this would pay off very quickly.

But then improving our telecom networks no longer seems to be Job One at the FCC these days -- improving telecom companies' profits seems to be the Prime Directive these days.

Randy Smith
2006-10-17 06:50:38
I feel for you. I live in Northern California and a few years ago we had one strong pacific storm move in. Wind speeds were clocked at well over 100+ MPH. They toppled power transmission towers, antenna towers, fences, uprooted trees. We had an old triple line drop to our pole and then a more modern drop to the house. The triple line drop touched wires during the storm and cut the wires. We were the only house around without power. We went without power for 7 days. I am an amateur radio operator and I knew all the Pacific Gas and Electric frequencies and had them in one of my radios. I listened for days to them and on the sixth day I heard them pulling trucks off of regular calls to restore power to homes of their employes. They probably deserved to be online first but after calling them on the 7th day and telling them what I heard them say on their radios a truck was fixing my pole within one hour.

I would suggest getting a wide band scanner. It can keep you informed of what is really going on where you are at. Putting in the public works, police, fire and rescue frequencies will keep you well informed. You will often have more information than most agencies do.

2006-10-17 06:51:36
Just a clarification, before everyone jumps on me for slamming all the Hawaian cellular companies whose networks stayed up -- this was not the case with Katrina, where cellular networks of all types went down and stayed down. I'll still stick with my guess about the towers depending on the power grid, but in the Hawaiian situation, the cellular companies (other than T-Mobile) must have backup power available -- something the mainland networks either don't do or else they have a rather rigid network definition that doesn't tolerate losing a few towers.
2006-10-17 07:39:02
Besides the power grid, what other infrastructure is required by the cellular providers? Do they connect communications between towers over the air, or over wires? Can anyone comment?

Not defending them, just asking. And it's a bit of professional interest - I'm an emergency responder in Upstate New York.

Todd Ogasawara
2006-10-17 09:53:40
Dave: All major cellular companies' towers have backup power. T-Mobile's towers were actually up and transmitting. It simply did not provide voice or data service once you got connection. Some people were able to get service if they were in an area where they could roam to a Cingular cell. From what I can tell, in my area the cell towers (regardless of carrier) have about 12 hours of backup battery power. The last time we had a long lasting blackout both T-Mobile and Sprint PCS (the two carriers I use) failed at the same time 12 hours after the blackout started. Landline telcos are different, btw. They have backup generators and a system of rolling trucks with fuel to central offices on a scheduled basis during a power outage to keep landline phones running and powered up.
Mick Henniger
2006-10-17 09:54:50
Todd, nice run-down. I live on the windward side of Oahu and we were without electricity for 12 hours. We used a generator to keep the fridges cold and to run lights at night to play ping-pong. Plenty of popane meant we could cook on the barbie. I have one old-style phone which came in handy as did a transistor radio. We had a marine type deep-cycle battery which kept the shortwave ham radio and laptops going all day. I was impressed with how smoothly the ham radio operators got on and started passing traffic on shortwave almost immediately after the quake. The ability to communicate while the phones were jammed was valuable. It was good to know that if we had completely lost phone service we could use them.

We live on a hill overlooking the town and what impressed me was how much quieter everything is when there is no power available.

Todd Ogasawara
2006-10-17 10:15:16
Qka: The cell companies need wired connections between their cell sites and also a wired connection to local and long distance wireline phone services (Verizon, AT&T/SBC, Sprint). And, of course, they need people to stay off the system or at least use it only when really needed during a perceived crisis to keep the traffic at manageable levels. Wireline telcos have the same problem when traffic gets too high.
2006-10-17 10:53:30
A+: Foodland Makiki for being open right after the quake. John the manager was helping people carry out their groceries, and they even had a working ATM. There was no panic and people didn't even work there were stocking shelves.

F: Safeway on Beratania gets an F for the fact the employees were standing with crossed arms behind the locked doors staring at the 10 people wanting to come in.

D+ :The local radio gets a D for the fact they were late getting on the air, couldn't get in touch hold of the local tsunami center, and Perry & Price would ridicule certain callers, not needed during a crisis. They should retire these antiques of morning show.

D: The electric company.

B: People driving around. Though there were plenty of them (stay home!) most people showed aloha and treated the intersections as 4 way stops.

B: My self evaluation. I had shortwave-am-fm-battery operated radio, batteries, flashlights, propane and stove, plenty of h20 and canned goods, but did not have a battery operated air pump for my aquarium which I had to hand stir every 15 minutes for 16 hours.

2006-10-17 11:11:32
My T-Mobile phone kept working. I didn't abuse it, just checked that I could reach a few people in case there were yet another earthquake. As to their report of "tower trouble," in my experience they have no idea what's happening locally on their network or why. They just say something. We're a two-cellphone family and I'm thinking of switching vendors on one of them just for some redundency.
2006-10-17 19:49:23
Thanks for this great discussion starter Todd. I was on the mainland, and tried calling all my diff friends with diff cell service; reached none of them, but in some cases did get voice mail instead of circuits busy or service unavailable message.

Now - why was I able to send and receive text messages but not phone calls? It's a good thing to keep in mind.

2006-10-17 20:21:23
Our Hawaiian Telcom and T-Mobile phones seemed to never go down. although I didnt' use my HTC phone until around 9am. T-Mobile seemed to be up immediately.

My wife bought a second hand Viking gas range when we moved in to our house a few years back, we had a plumber run 2 barbecue sized propane tanks to it from our back yard (well ventilated). That was the most useful tech we had, we made coffee for us and our neighbors, cooked breakfast for the kids, and were able to make a nice dinner by candlelight that night. I've never considered myself an "off the grid" guy, but the efficiency of that range is amazing, each propane tank runs for several months for a family of 4.

2006-10-20 02:15:16
I also live on the Windward side. I have T-Mobile & although I had trouble getting calls through, I still eventually could get through.

If a tsunmai had materialized, the lack of an ability to get any warning out would have meant certain death for some. I understand that the sirens, while operational in themselves, are controlled by a computer system that is dependent on the electric grid. Hence, the siren system was wholely inoperable.

We need better communication, & the ability for the Pacific Tsunami Center to issue warnings that would automatically break into broadcasts. What if this had been a 7.9 earthquake?

P.S. We had battery operated radio & camplight, propane lantern & burner & grill, & one wired land line phone. Plus Monopoly to while away the time ...

2006-10-20 08:15:54
With regards to Tsunami warnings, If you live in a coastal area and experience a severe earthquake, that should be the warning. Shoreline near a tsunami generating earthquake should experience the first waves in 7 to 20 minutes, which isn't enough time for data to be evaluated and reported even when all communication systems are up and running. The center of Cascadia subduction zones is (I hink) about 90 miles offshore and waves will hit the near shore in about 20 minutes. The Hawaiian quake was closer to shore and if the sea bottom had moved significantly, A tsunami would have been onshore very quickly.
2007-10-08 04:26:22
There are, of course, exceptions to the rule. I seem to recall reading that a mesh wireless LAN used for security cameras in New Orleans survived Hurricane Katrina and was used to provide Voice over IP (VoIP) after other communications conduits failed.