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Blogging in a Disaster

Blogging in a Disaster

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans three years ago, I was stranded in the upstate of Louisiana without my most basic tools. I was there for several weeks with only dial-up Web access and a borrowed computer to help me out. Yet, I managed to update my online diary twice a day during my evacuation and continue to operate my then-newest site Plagiarism Today.

Now, three years later, I find myself in a similar position. As I am writing this, I am evacuated for Hurricane Gustav while tending to a new blog, Inelegant Solutions (see link above) and several older ones. I also have to worry about writing jobs and consulting work even though my computers and my files are mostly packed up.

However, this time around, I am better prepared. Not only was the evacuation more smooth, but I am better able to maintain my presence online despite barely being able to see the Web.

However, making that happen requires a great deal of preparation and taking several steps before anything happens. For bloggers who want to keep writing no matter what, I would strongly urge the following steps.

1. Make a List of Needed Tools

Make a list of software you need to run your site. For many, that might be just a Web browser and a Web connection, others need image editors, screen capture utilities or other tools. Then, either arrange to get a portable version of that application or find a Web-based alternative.

The goal is to set it up so that you would have everything you need should you be forced to use a strange computer for weeks on end.

2. Use Portable Apps

Speaking of portable applications, take a moment and buy a small USB stick, only a gigabyte or two is needed, and install any and all portable applications that you think might be useful. Especially important apps are Firefox, along with any extensions you need, OpenOffice, an RSS reader (to allow offline RSS viewing) and anything else that you might want.

Doing this can speed up your “settling in” phase by giving you a series of applications you are already familiar with, not forcing you to relearn anything. Also, be sure to keep these applications up to date.

3. Move Data to The Cloud

Any information that you need to run your site, put it in a secure place on the Web. Remember that you will likely be using a strange computer so any URLs that you can’t remember and type by hand, put those on the Web too. If you use a program to store your passwords, store a cache of those on the Web also. Obviously, you’ll want to encrypt and secure such information before posting it.

Even if you have your own browser on a thumb drive, as recommended above, it is best to make sure everything is in multiple places. I have been repeatedly saved by my private bookmarks on Diigo.

4. Use Web-Based Email

Even if you strongly prefer using Outlook or Thunderbird to check your email, having a Web-based alternative is a huge asset in a disaster. On that front, I strongly recommend Google Apps if you operate your own domain or regular Gmail if you don’t. It takes mere moments to set up, gives you full IMAP access to your email and, when you are not able to use your computer, gives you Gmail access to your account.

If you can’t or don’t wish to use Gmail to manage your mail, make sure that you have some form of Web access to your inbox. Otherwise, you might not be able to communicate.

5. Use Twitter

While on the topic of communication, if you do not have a Twitter account, set one up. In addition to being a great site on a slow connection, it also allows for updating via cell phone. Twitter can be an invaluable tool for providing updates and communicate with your readers when you have limited access to the Web.

6. Get the Right Equipment

Laptops are a necessary tool for working mobile in any situation. Remember though, most of the time you do not need a lot of horsepower to get the job done. Using an ultra-portable such as an EeePC can save you money, space and backache. If you bring a keyboard and mouse, you can set up almost anywhere and start working immediately.

7. Find Web Access

Laptop cell phone cards are great tools for mobile Web access but they are both expensive and limited. If you don’t have cell phone access where you are, your card will do no good and you will still be paying $50 a month or more for it, regardless of how much you use it.

If you decide to get one, pick up a USB one so that it can be used in almost any computer. All in all though, these do not make great backup plans because of their cost. Most people who don’t do a lot of mobile blogging don’t need one.

An alternative is to get a cell phone that can be used as a wireless access card, and use it instead should you find yourself in a pinch.

Most of the time, you’re better off hunting free wifi either at a coffee shop, bookstore, library or, even better, your hotel. Though you can’t always be picky, especially if you are forced to evacuate, you can usually find wifi somewhere nearby if you search.

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Failing that, be creative and ask around. After I returned to New Orleans following Katrina, I was without Internet access for three weeks but my friend, who was on a different carrier, had it restored in just a few days.

8. Bring it Together

Once you have your tools and your access, you need to start working. However, this is often the hardest part. Distractions abound and tight quarters leave little chance to concentrate. Furthermore, a strange work environment can make it very difficult to do even simple tasks, no matter how hard you worked to make it like your old one.

For me, I found that it helps to shut yourself away and get things done. Work for at least 30 minutes at a time. If there is anything you can bring from your old environment with you, do so. For example, if you like to work with music playing, make sure you have some of your favorite songs with you.

As with anything though, don’t force it. If you can’t work right then, trying to make yourself will probably only make things work. Life always trumps blogging. If you can’t think or don’t want to write, walk away and come back when you are ready.

For me, I find that working during a period of stress helps me out. It takes my mind off of what is going on and gives me something to do other than worry and mope. Without the work I put into Plagiarism Today following Katrina, I seriously doubt I would have kept my sanity.

If you are not that type of person, I understand. The steps in this guide, however, are still a good idea. After all, power outages and computer crashes can happen to anyone and the same steps that can help keep you working through an evacuation can also help you work through other difficulties.

The bottom line is that, if your blog is a big part of your life, it makes sense to disaster-proof the same as you would anything else.

For me at least, my hard work is one of my most valued possessions.

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