Storms' Fury Cut Off Data Lines That Bind

Residents begin to clean up following Wednesday's violent storm.
By Kim Hart and Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 7, 2008

Bethesda eighth-grader Jacob Rasch could not do his history homework assignment on the Compromise of 1877 on Thursday because, he said, he couldn't look it up on Wikipedia.

His mother could not e-mail health forms so Jacob can play baseball in high school this fall because severe thunderstorms that rolled through the Washington region this week took down the family's power and their Internet connection.

And his father couldn't fix the generator outside the house because he couldn't visit to find out how to clean the carburetor so that the generator would spring to life and power, among other things, the wireless router to their computer network.

So the Rasch family packed a laptop Thursday evening and moved to a hotel, where they could log on and feel plugged in.

"We couldn't connect to the outside world without the power and the Internet," Jacob Rasch said. "We had no idea what was going on."

It's one thing to be without power. It's another to be without information.

The storms that pummeled the region this week didn't just knock out the lights in hundreds of thousands of homes. They also made people realize how dependent they have become on the Internet, how much checking e-mail, banking online and using search engines have become woven into the daily rhythms of their lives.

In the District, 58 percent of households use a high-speed Internet connection from a cable modem, DSL or fiber connection, or wireless service, according to the Federal Communications Commission and the Census Bureau. About 35 percent of all Virginia households and 39 percent of Maryland homes are highly wired. The percentages in the D.C. suburbs are probably higher than the statewide figures, but the FCC does not sort users by metropolitan areas.

About 500,000 households and businesses in the Washington area went without power after Wednesday's storm, which killed one person and damaged a number of homes and cars. Some households had electricity but no Internet, phone or cable service because the fiber and cable lines were damaged by fallen trees or flooding. Most of the 1.1 million people who rely on Comcast's high-speed Internet service were affected by the storm, said Jaye Linnen, a Comcast spokeswoman. Many of Verizon's 1 million customers also were disconnected when they could not power their modems, as well as 56,000 Cox subscribers. Service had been restored yesterday to all but a few thousand customers, the companies said.

But unplugged telecommuters had to find fast alternatives to meet work deadlines and reach clients.

Elise Gibbons, a Web designer, had to get a digital photo to a client by Thursday night. Her home office lost power and DSL service Wednesday, but her land line still worked. So she dug through boxes in her basement to find a dial-up modem, circa 1998. She finally got a connection, but it took two hours for her e-mail to get through. Yesterday she drove to New Jersey to make sure her client received the file properly.

"You don't realize how much you depend on it until you lose it," said Gibbons, whose Greenbelt home was still dark yesterday evening.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company