Lessons learnt from AWN's disruption by ... the weather
Fri 2 Feb 2018
It's said that thunderstorms are the most powerful entertainment you can experience completely for free. I've had lots of that free entertainment during January, but it's come at an expense.
I, and the computers that keep AWN updating, live in a small, historic village in Central Western NSW. Unfortunately, our electricity infrastructure seems to belong to the same era as the village. The locals keep their supply of candles at the ready and wisely stick to gas for cooking, as the prospect of a candle-lit dinner is no fun without hot food. Power surges, brownouts and blackouts ranging from a few seconds to 3 or 4 hours are part of life, especially when there are storms in the area.
A UPS (Uninterruptible Power Supply) is essential equipment here to protect computers from blackouts, power surges and nearby lightning, and to allow them to close down gracefully before the battery storage they provide runs out. Mine have seen a workout this January, and not all from storms. Last evening, with not a storm anywhere in NSW, the power went off eight times in the course of two hours over dinner. Our UDS (Uninterruptible Dining System) went as smoothly as the UPSs, though, with candles burning and the roast undisturbed. It was our first cool evening in weeks, and we weren't going to be denied our roast.
The storms and our desultory power supply have given no option other than closing down the system at times, resulting in delays to data. Fortunately, no data is ever lost: once the system is back up, it restarts from where it left off and catches back up to real time.
The biggest casualty has been the computer I have painstakingly set up to prepare the news items that go both here and in the relevant day's Daily Weather Summary. The first difficulty arose soon after I wrote the glowing forecast of improvements to the news service on 7 January. The computer's main hard disk crashed following a particularly spectacular set of nearby lightning strikes.
I keep multiple backups of all data and a whole-of-disk backup (ghost image) for all computers. While the data backups store all web documents, weather data, etc., it is the ghost image of each full disk that stores all programs as well as the preferences I have set for their operation. I was alarmed to find that the ghost image for the News computer was partly corrupt and effectively useless. Foretunately, my ingenious tech was able to re-image a new hard disk using a pricy piece of kit that painstakingly pursuaded the full contents off the old disk.
All was ready to restart the News last Sunday when a second disaster struck. With an ugly storm imminent, I began closing down the News computer, at that point unprotected by a yet-to-be-delivered UPS. The power went out while the computer was saving its settings. Removing a computer's power while it is shutting down means sure disaster. All that merry burbling you hear from it after you click the shut down button is the computer doing thousands of pieces of housekeeping so that everything is in apple-pie order for the next time you press start. The computer failed to restart. Back to the tech for a second re-imaging.
Somewhat chastened by these events, I offer these humble lessons learnt to those that live in areas of regular thunderstorm activity or uncertain power supply:
- Protect your system: Have sufficient UPS capacity to cover all computers, phone line or NBN input and peripherals such as routers. According to Dynamic Business Technologies, in Australian business "45% of total unplanned downtime is caused by hardware failures, followed by loss of power (35%)". A proper UPS, unlike surge power boards which offer limited protections, looks like this, gives the computer backup electricity and instructions to allow it to close down normally, and can be had for well under the cost of a new hard disk. This Choice buying guide is useful.
- Back up, Back up, Back up: A long-running annual survey of backup habits, conducted by Harris Interactive for Backblaze, found that in May 2017 only 21% of American adults backed up daily or weekly while 63% backed up yearly, less frequently than yearly or never. Frequently back up your files (documents, cherished photos, family videos, etc), preferably automatically (so you don't forget) and keep a second backup copy offsite. Rotate them regularly and use free or cheap cloud storage for your important stuff. You may be able to recover files if a disk fails or computer gets scrambled, but it will cost and is by no means certain. You'll lose them for sure if your computer (and backup hard disk drive) is stolen, fried in a house fire or hit by malicious attack such as ransomware, which is when the offsite or cloud backups come in real handy.
- Take a ghost image of your whole computer to save its operating system and your squillion apps, including all the preferences, options and setup changes you've lovingly tinkered with to make it your own. Test it (your software or Google will tell you how). Update it as new changes are made and again keep a copy offsite.
Where did I fail? Turning off a computer without UPS protection at the moment a blackout hit. Not testing that the ghost image would work. And not having a second ghost image backup (the offsite one) as a backup of the backup. Mea culpa.
But the storms were awe-inspiring, and that candlelight dinner was superb.
Ex Tropical Cyclone Fehi swipes NZ: Fri 2 Feb 2018: The remains of Tropical Cyclone Fehi brought heavy rain, strong wind and thunderstorms to the South Island and southern parts of the North Island of New Zealand between 31 January and 2 February. Thousands had to be evacuated from the West and North Coasts of the South Island and the Taranaki area of the North Island. Severe weather also extended to eastern parts of the South Island, where parts of Dunedin were flooded. Roads were damaged or blocked by landslides, particularly on the South Island West Coast, while 6,500 properties suffered blackouts, some long-lasting. Queenstown and Westport airports were closed for several days and parts of the West Coast were isolated until 3 February.
This animation from MetService New Zealand summarises the event, including some of the extreme rainfall and wind values recorded. From Andrew Miskelly, this shows Fehi's transition from a Tropical Cyclone near New Caledonia on 29 January via a path that took it close to Norfolk Island to when its remains made a rather messy crossing of the South Island during 1 and 2 February. This shows one of the cyclone's centres taking a wander up the West Coast during 2 February. Radio NZ gave this detailed report and an audio report on the morning of 2 February. Reuters gave a good general report on 2 February with a follow-up on 3 February.
Guatamala and Honduras badly hit by flooding
Fri 2 Feb 2018
The adjoining Central American countries of Guatemala and Honduras were hit by heavy rain and widespread flooding as a cold front crossed the area at the beginning of February. In Guatemala, where heavy rain has been causing problems since last September, national authorities reported that over 26,000 people were affected, with 510 evacuated and 2 missing. In Honduras, the cold airmass brought heavy rain to the Caribbean coast, mostly around the municipality of Omoa.
In Guatemala, 62 communities were flooded after tropical storm Selma delivered at least 250mm last October, causing over 1,000 evacuations, wiping out crops and contaminating artesian wells. Families in these communities were replanting crops on borrowed money when the latest heavy rain occurred. [Red Cross]
Major floods in Bolivia, Argentina and Paraguay
Fri 2 Feb 2018
Heavy rain fell in central and southern Bolivia and northern Argentina in the week before 5 February. In Bolivia, six people died, over 100 homes and 120sq km of crops were damaged, hundreds of people were evacuated and over 50,000 affected by flooding of the Rocha, Ibare, Tupiza and Mamone Rivers. Yacuiba, on the Bolivia/Argentina border, recorded 24-hourly falls of 98.2mm to 26 January, 194.2 to 28 January (a record) and 48.2 to 31 January. This is the middle of the wet season, when Yacuiba normally receives 217mm for the whole month of January but not usually with such intensity. The rain and flooding were accompanied by storms, hail and landslides.
Neighbouring Argentina and Paraguay were also affected by rain, but mostly by floodwater moving down-river from Bolivia. In Argentina, there was one death and 10,000 people were evacuated when the Pilcomayo River flooded. ECHO's map shows the area affected, Floodlist gives a good summary of the event in Bolivia, while Al Jazeera ran a story on the event on 4 February with a video follow-up of the situation in Argentina on 9 February.
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