Telecommuting and disasters: a reprise

Telecommuting can be particularly important during and after disasters. Thirty years ago, on 17 October 1989, a 6.9 magnitude earthquake, named the Loma Prieta, occurred at almost 6:00 in the evening near Santa Cruz, California. The shock was felt over much of California but particularly in the San Francisco region. Bridges and freeways crumbled or collapsed. Buildings were damaged, some destroyed. Almost 4,000 people were injured and 63 were killed. The damage was estimated at almost $6 billion.

Coincidentally JALA was running a demonstration test of telecommuting in cooperation with the state government of California. One of our test sites was the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC). The PUC’s offices in downtown San Francisco were essentially trashed by the earthquake. They remained that way for more than a week. It was impossible to work there until the offices were repaired.

Fortunately, several of the PUC’s staff were participants in the California telecommuting project. All of them were able to work from their homes as if nothing untoward had happened. It was business as usual for them and no business at all for their non-telecommuting colleagues. That’s the good news. The slightly bad news is that while the telecommuters continued to work effectively their office-bound colleagues had several days off.

Almost a year later, on 10 October 1990, the project received a commendation for innovation from the Council of State Governments for showing the usefulness of telecommuting in many sorts of situations. Including, of course, normal working.

Since then, telecommuting has served as an important disaster preparedness tool for earthquakes, floods, blizzards and other situations where the roads and/or buildings are too damaged but the power is on. Such events have also acted as the trigger for more widespread working anywhere, any time.

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