Sunday, September 28, 2014

NPM14: Infrastructure Failure Preparedness

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Basic kit : NWS radio, First Aid Kit, Lanterns, Water & Food & cash  

 

Note: This is day 28  of National Preparedness Month. Follow this year’s campaign on Twitter by searching for the #NatlPrep & NPM14 hash tag.

 

# 9119

 

Historically, for most of us living in North America, our biggest disaster threats come from severe weather (tornadoes, floods, blizzards & hurricanes), wildfires, or earthquakes.  But as we become more urbanized, and increasingly dependent upon aging, oft times fragile infrastructures, the threats we face are likely to evolve over time.

 

A prime example, which lasted but a few days last August, was contamination of the water supply for Toledo, Ohio and surrounding areas with a harmful toxin produced by microcystis algae (see Water, Water, Everywhere But Not A Drop To Drink). 

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Unlike most disaster scenarios (and Michael Bay movies) cities weren’t destroyed, and lives weren’t lost.  But had the algae bloom lasted longer, or remained near the water intakes on Lake Erie for a few more days, the societal and economic impacts would have been much greater.

 

Despite warnings from NOAA that it could happen (it had previously, on a smaller scale) – few were prepared with enough water on hand to last their households even three days.

 

Lest you think this is a freak occurrence, every four years the ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) releases a report card on America’s infrastructure, and their latest (2013) warns that our cumulative GPA for infrastructure sits at only a D+, and two of our most vulnerable infrastructures are drinking water and the electrical grid.


The truth is, parts of our ageing electrical grid are more than 100 years old, and even newer components are vulnerable to everything from severe weather to solar storms to cyber attacks. And there are thousands of miles of rusting century-old water mains running under the streets of Los Angeles, New York, Boston, and elsewhere. 

 

There are 84,000 dams (average age 52 years) in this country, and 100,000 miles of levees.  Both rate a not-so-reassuring D on the ASCE report card, and many are in grave need of repairs and upgrades. While we usually normally pay little attention to these structures, as they age, they can pose hidden risks to those who live near them.

 

Add in a precipitating event – like an earthquake, hurricane, or flood – and the risks of failure only increase.

 

In terms of widespread impact, a prolonged widespread power outage has the greatest potential for disruption. It is the job of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) to "ensure the reliability of the North American bulk power system", a mandate given to it in 2006 as a result of the 2003 Northeast blackout which affected more than 50 million people in the United States and Ontario, Canada. 

 

In  2009, NERC issued a public notice warning that the grid was `vulnerable’ to cyber attack, and that same year  the National Academy of Sciences produced a 134 page report on the potential damage that a major solar flare could cause in Severe Space Weather Events—Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts (see Solar Storms, CMEs & FEMA).

 

Last October, in GridEx 2013 Preparedness Drill, we looked at a major drill to determine their ability to respond to a full grid-down situation, caused by a cyber-attack.  Despite attempts to `harden’ the electrical grid against attacks, last July Bloomberg News reported:

 

U.S. Power Grid Vulnerable to Attack: Congressional Research Service

A coordinated and simultaneous attack on the nation's electricity grid could have “crippling” effects including widespread extended blackouts and “serious economic and social consequences,” according to a federal report on the physical security of high-voltage transformer substations.

 

Of course, it doesn’t take a cyber-attack, solar storm, or EMP to take down the grid for millions of people for days or even weeks at a time.  We’ve seen that happen from ice storms, hurricanes, and blizzards in the past.  A major earthquake could do so, as well.  

Without electricity, gas pumps won’t work, credit & debit cards are useless (got cash?), and refrigerated foods may quickly begin to spoil (in your home, and in the store).  For those who depend on electric heat during the winter or those who rely on medical devices – like oxygen generators – a prolonged outage could have deadly implications.

 

Interruptions in food deliveries, closed pharmacies, 911 system failures, cell phone & internet disruptions, hospitals and emergency services operating on generators and a finite supply of fuel . . .  well, you get the picture.

 

Which pretty much described the scene I found in New Orleans when I helped my brother retrieve his belongings from the French Quarter six weeks after Hurricane Katrina inundated the city, and more recently, for the residents of New York and New Jersey who went a week or longer without power after `super storm’ Sandy struck two years ago.  

 

Admittedly, in most cases, power would be restored in a few days. But the difference between a prolonged outage being an inconvenience and an absolute nightmare can often hinge on your level of preparedness.

 

If an infrastructure failure struck your region today, and the power went out, stores closed their doors, and water stopped flowing from your kitchen tap for the next 7 days  . . .  do you have:

 

  • A battery operated NWS Emergency Radio to find out what was going on, and to get vital instructions from emergency officials?
  • A decent first-aid kit, so that you can treat injuries?
  • Enough non-perishable food and water on hand to feed and hydrate your family (including pets) for the duration?
  • A way to provide light (and in cold climates, heat) for your family without electricity?   And a way to cook?  And to do this safely?
  • An emergency plan, including meeting places, emergency out-of-state contact numbers, and in case you must evacuate, a bug-out bag?
  • Spare supply of essential prescription medicines that you or your family may need?
  • Enough emergency cash to get you through a week or more without access to an ATM or the use of a credit/debit card?

If your answer is `no’, you have some work to do.  A good place to get started is by visiting either  Ready.gov or the FEMA.gov websites.

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