On Scene: A Port in the St. Louis Storm

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Every available table was spoken for at St. Louis Coffee Oasis on Friday morning at 10:30. Word had spread that this 14-table coffee shop in the city's Central West End neighborhood still had free wireless Internet. After Wednesday night's windstorm that pummeled the city, damaged Busch Stadium and left 500,000 without power, the Internet is as coveted as ice or flashlights.

Central West End is home to Washington University's medical campus and a favorite hangout for hip twentysomethings. The neighborhood is one of the luckier ones — many residents never lost power. Half a dozen coffee shops advertising free wi-fi line the main drag, Euclid Avenue.

The promise of the Internet brought Analise Blakley, 30, to St. Louis Coffee Oasis. She lost power on Wednesday night at her home in nearby Webster Grove. Her office in downtown St. Louis was unaffected yesterday, but a city transformer gave out and she was sent home. After a hot night without any news of the city's damage, Blakley set out with her laptop this morning. "I first tried St. Louis Bread Company because they had power yesterday morning," she said. "But after the transformer blew, they lost power. I came here and was happy to get the Internet."

For a limited time, anyway. Shortly before 11 a.m., another severe storm rumbled through St. Louis, knocking out the electricity for another 200,000; the St. Louis Coffee Oasis was no longer an Internet oasis. Blakely could only laugh as she shut off her laptop. "At least I had the Internet for a few minutes," she mused. "But I still don't know what's going on in the city." Had she been able to log on, Blakely would have learned of water boiling orders, the arrival of the National Guard, forced evacuations, sold-out gas stations, booked hotels and power outages predicted until next Thursday.

At a nearby table, three young men also had shut their laptops in disbelief. Like Blakely, they'd also lost the power in the storm. But their 7th–floor apartment proved too hot and they've spent the past 36 hours staying with nearby friends and perusing free wi-fi wherever they could find it. "I like to think we're European backpackers," said Dave Aronberg, 25.

St. Louis Coffee Oasis cleared out within minutes of losing the Internet. As Aronberg and his friends turned to leave, co-owner Qamar Yanes assured them the Internet would return soon. "Oh, we're not leaving because of the Internet — we just have other things to do," Aronberg told her. They were going home to pack for a road trip to an air-conditioned casino in Mississippi.

Shortly before noon, Joe Mantovani, 22, walked in with his laptop. When told that the Internet was out, he sighed in frustration. Barnes and Noble, Einstein Bros. Bagels, Panera and the local library had also lost their connection, he said.

But Mantovani, who returned home from Vegas at 1 a.m. this morning, was determined to get online. He set up shop at a table and waited. Slowly, the Internet connection returned and by 1 p.m. he was in business. "I'll probably come back here when I need to get on the Internet again," he said. "It's amazing how helpless we are without it."