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By Jack Ganssle

Hurricane Madness

Published 9/22/2003

I left the Embedded Systems Conference earlier than planned to prepare for Isabel. She arrived slowly; the wind Thursday was just a nice sailing breeze even into evening. The hurricane party at the marina reached raucous levels as revelers, fueled by drink, lost their fear of the slowly-approaching storm. Some stayed up to await developments; others crashed, their alcohol-soaked brains insuring a sound night's sleep despite escalating developments outside.

By midnight the rains started and the wind grew to gale and eventually storm force. The tempest drifted inland, sparing Baltimore from anything over 50 knots. But for 12 hours or more the constant southeast stream blew the sea up the Chesapeake Bay. We watched as the floating docks rose over 7 feet and the land disappeared under a blanket of dirty-brown water. By morning those of us on the dock were isolated from shore, refugees on a thousand foot-long floating pier. Finally the water started to recede. We drove down Aliceanna street. in a dingy.

Ashore people's basements were flooded, possessions ruined, cars sunken. Fallen trees downed power lines in every neighborhood; 1.2 million Marylanders lost power. Though ours came back in less than 24 hours many folks remain blacked out.

Our cable is still down 4 days after the storm. The TV matters not, but without cable there's no broadband Internet access here. I wired the PC to the phone line and, after struggling without success to establish a dialup connection remembered the modem had failed a year or two ago. So now I'm using the wife's computer over a painfully slow telephone link.

Spoiled by an always-on, very fast connection I'd forgotten how much of daily life revolves around the `net. It's faster to go to dictionary.com than to pull down the dead-tree version from the shelf. Most of my research is done online. People at the ESC recommended a half-dozen books, which I'd normally order via the one-click shopping on amazon.com. In searching for a theater showing The Magdelena Sisters we went on-line but moviefone.com at 50kbps is maddening; Internet Explorer blithely indicates "20 items remaining". Then 18. Later 14. When it eventually hits zero I've forgotten what we wanted to know.

The Internet has changed our lives. Only when deprived of it - or any technology - do we realize just how central it is to life. Without a phone we're adrift, cut off from friends, family and business. Without a cell phone we're moored to a desk or house. Our neighbors still have no power and can neither cook nor keep perishables; extension cords snake across the street from the electron-rich west side so they can at least get by till repair crews finish their work.

We who build technology also build dependence on that technology. Sometimes a storm that crashes our interconnected lifestyle is a good thing; we remember, at least for a day or two, the almost miraculous transformation effected by the `net, by electricity, running water, and so many other taken-for-granted aspects of civilization. And our compassion swells for those billions on the planet who as yet have none of these benefits, whose lives remain tragically short and destitute.

Through the window I see 6 trucks and a dozen utility workers milling around. One works while the others supervise and critique the coffee. Gentle wife restrains me from offering suggestions to help speed their labors. I've had enough meditation on the wonders of technology. now I just want my broadband back!