I work for an Internet provider called Teleport Internet Services, based in Portland, Oregon, with points of presence throughout Oregon and southwest Washington. I don’t know how wide coverage was, but a few months ago record flooding was saturating Portland and (to a greater extent) the many smaller towns throughout Oregon and Washington. I felt it might be helpful to share some of our experiences with the floods, what we learned, and how we dealt with things during the emergency. I don’t intend any sort of solicitation or horn touting for Teleport; I’m just one person sharing experiences for the betterment of all.
First, a little background. Teleport Internet Services is located in downtown Portland, four blocks from the Willamette River. (Portland itself straddles the Willamette where it joins the Columbia.) Our network connections come from SprintNet, Structured, MCI, and RainNet. We house our T1 lines and phone lines, along with other equipment, in a basement. We’re the largest Internet provider in Oregon, with have roughly 17,000 subscribers.
When the floods came, the Willamette River was projected to crest above the seawall that protects downtown. If water entered the basement, we would be out of service for who knows how long before US West could repair or reinstall our T1 lines, phone lines, and so on. Needless to say, it was a tense situation. We were intent on operating until the last moment possible. One of the first things that seemed important was to get the insurance claim process underway in the background before anything happened. If disaster did strike, every insurance claim agent in the state would be back-logged for the next year, and it would be doubly disastrous for us to be offline for a long time.
Then we made the Web our focus. Almost all or our users use our home page as their default page, and many people turn to it for current information. First, we put up a notice that we might be going down. Then we changed the outgoing message on our voicemail to reflect the emergency conditions. We compiled a list of current flood news and links on the top of the home page, and we worked closely with emergency crews and the city to post the most recent emergency instructions and requests for volunteers, sandbags, and other supplies. In case we went down, we made arrangements to inform the news media, so they could list us with other outages and cancellations, much as they do for schools, colleges, and large businesses. In general, we tried to post current information about which roads were closed, which areas were flooded, and so on.
Then the emergency agencies began telling people to stay off the phones because the phone system infrastructure couldn’t handle the load as many people tried to call 911 or other numbers. So we put a prominent notice on our home page that basically said "GET OFF THE INTERNET!" (What a strange thing for an Internet provider to say.) We had some internal debate as to whether we should shut down entirely to free up phone line bandwidth for emergency calls, or stay online for people using the net as a resource for flood information. We choose to stay online, and we were lucky in the end, because the city of Portland came together and built a wall on top of the existing seawall. In addition, the river crested below the predicted level, leaving downtown Portland untouched, though covered with sandbags.
In the end, we became fully aware of our role as an information provider and a means for distributing current information. During the emergency, organization within the company became extremely important, as did communication with emergency agencies. Our Web team established many ties that weren’t in place before, and those ties will benefit us all the next time around. Perhaps most importantly, pulling together to fight the flood became an excellent opportunity for building community, something that many local Internet providers must emphasize as they struggle to compete with the Baby Bells, cable companies, and national Internet providers. Heck, we even got pictures as some of our crew went outside to pose with sandbags on their lunch breaks. The flood opened many people’s eyes and helped them see how the Internet can become as essential as television or radio; it also made us realize how helpless we (and everyone else) would have been if Mother Nature had flooded downtown Portland.