As Manhattan went dark, Squarespace fought like hell to stay online

The destruction left in Hurricane Sandy’s wake continues to echo through New York as residents of Staten Island, Coney Island, Manhattan, and other hard-hit areas continue to make do without power or food or, in some cases, somewhere to go. New York’s citizens have been battered, as have the technology and media businesses that call the city home.

Gawker went down. BuzzFeed went dark for a while. Flooding prevented other startups from making their way to their offices, which, given the fact that a lot of Manhattan lost power, probably would have been shut down anyway. If there were ever an appropriate time to call it a night (or a week), the days after Sandy finished her whirlwind trip through New York would have been a prime candidate.

For Squarespace, that wasn’t an option.

Despite warnings to the contrary before Sandy had even touched the East Coast, the blogging platform never went down. Where Gawker and BuzzFeed’s data centers failed, Squarespace managed to operate despite being pummeled by the “storm of the century” via a mixture of obstinance, dedication, and dumb luck.

The company, which we have written about before, is a hosted blogging solution for bloggers and companies that want to build sites without being constrained to WordPress, Drupal, or other similar solutions. Squarespace is defined by its stability, and the company promises that “with our reliable and scalable cloud infrastructure, there’s no downtime, and nothing to install, patch, or upgrade.”

Preparation for the storm started on Monday. Squarespace switched its infrastructure at Peer1, over to backup power before darkness swallowed Manhattan as a preemptive measure, and Squarespace’s Jesse Hertzberg notes in a blog post that the company “took comfort over the fact that [it] had enough fuel to last three to four days.” Then the building started taking on water.

By the next morning, the entire basement had flooded, putting the fuel pumps and tanks out of commission. Squarespace had enough fuel to stay up for around four hours. The news was passed along to Squarespace CEO and founder Anthony Casalena, who, like many New Yorkers, had lost power and cellular coverage.

Somehow, Casalena says, the message got through – “I don’t know if the tower was on a battery backup or what” – and he started stuffing shirts into his backpack and walked from his apartment in SoHo to the data center, which is on Wall Street. Casalena says he had two goals: To help, if he could, and to keep an eye on things so he could tell his systems staff to pull the plug (and take the service offline) at the last possible moment.

A lack of fuel wasn’t necessarily the problem. Because the basement had flooded, the problem was the fact that they couldn’t get fuel from point A (the fuel tanks) to point B (the generator). All they had to do was get the fuel from one point to another by filling buckets and barrels and carrying them up 17 flights of stairs. So that’s what Casalena, other Squarespace employees, and Fog Creek employees did.

After turning to Craigslist to purchase oil drums, some 20 people set up a relay system to transport the fuel from the flooded basement to the still-running generator. Eventually they managed to get a working pump together, putting an end to the back-breaking task.

Casalena was careful to point out that he wasn’t the only one who deserves credit for Squarespace staying online. Seine Kim, a PR person at Squarespace, says that some of their employees walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to reach the data center and see how they could help.

“Chance events that [got] strung together allowed this to happen,” Casalena says. When we spoke on the phone this afternoon he seemed to be genuinely surprised at the fact that Squarespace didn’t go down, and wondered at what may have happened if he hadn’t gotten those messages on his phone or if others hadn’t shown up to carry those buckets and barrels up all of those stairs.

In a previous article we questioned how entrepreneurs might react in a time of stress. At the time, we didn’t know that one of the worst storms of the last century would hit, and that entrepreneurs* would be forced to make do with what the limited resources at their disposal.

It would have been understandable if Casalena and the rest of the group that kept Squarespace running had just said “fuck it” and gone back to their apartments. The basement was flooded, they had already warned customers that the service would experience some downtime, and much of Manhattan was blocked off from electricity, fuel, and the surrounding boroughs. Saying that the situation was completely screwed would be an understatement.

They kept going, however, and Squarespace managed to stay up. Casalena says that there may be some downtime in the future, as they’re still running off backup power, but that he expects it will be for “a few hours, not a couple weeks,” like it may have been if he hadn’t gotten those messages.

“We’re just really lucky,” Casalena says. I might expand that to “Lucky, loyal, and insane,” but the sentiment rings true.

*And many other people who have nothing to do with technology and have been affected by Hurricane Sandy. Information on where and how to help can be found here.