While Hurricane Ike has long since faded, its effects on the economy continue to mount. One of the more significant (and unexpected) - Ike knocked several oil refineries and gas distribution centers offline for the last couple of weeks.
The most immediate effect of this has been to dry up the supply of gas throughout much of the US Southeast, from North Carolina and Virginia to Texas. Beyond pushing prices well above $4 a gallon, stations have found it almost impossible to ship in gas.
As of Sept. 29, 57.4% of crude oil production is offline due to the back to back hurricanes earlier this month, with two of five major oil refineries in the region still out (the other three are back in production, but none are producing at full capacity). Several governors have requested that President Bush release oil from the Strategic Oil Reserve in order to get production restarted.
In many places, gas stations have either closed completely or only have their convenience stores open, with pumps cordoned off with yellow "crime scene" tape. Motorists are often limited to one or two stores in a metropolitan area, with long lines often forming before dawn. The pumps now distribute only a limited quantity of gas per customer, leading to frustration and more than a few fights.
The Georgia Environmental Authorities Authority now provides drivers with information about gas prices and gas availability in the News and Notices section.
These factors have exploded interest in telecommuting. In Georgia, John Oxendine, commissioner of insurance and safety fire for the state, has made telecommuting an option for all workers that do not need to be physically present to perform their jobs, at least until the gasoline shortage ends.
"As leaders of this state, we are obligated to find ways to relieve the burden of this gasoline shortage off the backs of taxpayers," Oxendine said in a statement. "By allowing additional state employees to work from their homes, this action should help reduce some of the strain on our gasoline supply and benefit those in the public and private sectors who are unable to telework."
Workers at the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, NC, have similarly become scarce on the ground, relying upon telework and carpooling to deal with limited fuel supplies and long lines.
"When I walked in the office (Wednesday), there was almost no one here. They were all out in gas lines trying to get gas to get to work," said Sharon LeDuc, deputy director of the NCDC.
Employees responded quickly to a memo from the federal agency, which urged its staff to work from home if possible.
"I just signed 20 requests on Wednesday for our employees to do telework," LeDuc said. Federal security guidelines require teleworker authorization, with proper equipment and security precautions. About a third of the 155 federal workers qualify. LeDuc said many of the 90 private contractors who work at the data center are also requesting permission to work from home.
"It didn't take a lot of encouragement when gas prices began to go up," LeDuc said. The NCDC has also purchased more bicycle racks to accommodate more workers who are cycling to work.
Beyond working from home, more people have taken advantage of remote office centers, facilities which offer both workspace and Internet facilities closer to their homes. Sites such as www.remoteofficecenters.com provide a directory of such centers in various metropolitan areas.
Dept. of Energy officials estimate that gasoline production should return up to 90% of capacity by the end of October. The current worldwide economic slowdown has pushed oil down dramatically from its high of $146 earlier this year. However, many economists and investors predict that oil, currently sitting at $96.65 a barrel for December contracts of sweet crude, will remain at or rise above this point. Prices may rise due both to geopolitical instability and continued strong demand from Asia.
This is likely to spur continued interest in developing telecommuting arrangements by businesses, using web-based applications, VPNs, and low cost teleconferencing options. Companies investigating telecommuting options specifically to handle emergency situations should consider several factors:
- Any emergency sufficient to knock out power to your primary plant (even if your computing resources are colocated elsewhere) has a good chance of wiping out power to your workers in the area too. This means that any remote strategy should probably assume mobile computers (laptops, mobile handsets, etc.) rather than "secured" home systems - people can get to remote offices, coffee shops, etc., that may have power.
- Project managers should create plans to distribute work effectively, including maintaining an CVS or SVN repository for revisions so that critical work isn't on a hard drive at a shuttered office, along with a regular backup to this SVN offsite so that if the primary is knocked out, the secondary versioning system is no more than a few hours behind the primary at any given time.
- Establish communication protocols established before such an emergency occurs, so that workers know who to contact and the best mechanism for contacting people ahead of time, along with alternates who are in charge in case a project manager is unable to get online.
- Consider setting up one or more password-protected company news feeds to which the appropriate employees can post. Emergencies often render communications sporadic. These feeds allow employees to access information independent of posting time. They can both disseminate emergency information and perform roll calls to see who may be in need.
- While security is an important consideration, do not go overboard - in a crisis, too much security can make networks more fragile.
For IT workers, there are a few tips that can make telecommuting in this kind of environment easier as well:
- Keep virus protection software up to date on your systems, especially your mobile ones -- you'll likely use them to access company networks. In a crisis there are likely to be fewer people able able to battle viruses in the main office.
- Employ an agile methodology in your development processes. This makes it easier to keep goals local so that if you are out of communication with the mothership for a while, you still have clearly defined deliverables.
- Coffeeshops may be your friend, but they are also considerably less secure than home setups. If you are in remote access locations, assume a hostile security profile and act accordingly.
We live in an era of potential disruption to normal work habits. Time spent determining the best course of action to follow when conditions become serious or critical will pay off big dividends when a hurricane (or a gas crisis) blows through.