Critical Infrastructure Resilience: What we can learn from Hurricane Sandy
Nov 14, 2012Posted by Chris Beck
More than a week after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East coast, residents along with local, state, and federal officials, and electricity, water, and other critical infrastructure sectors are still struggling to recover and rebuild from the devastation. As an American, I worry about my fellow citizens in the storm-ravaged areas. I applaud the heroic efforts to rebuild lives and communities and hope they will be successful and be completed as quickly as possible.
As CNP's new fellow for Homeland Security and Resilience, it is important to me to examine the effects of the storm and to ask whether our national policies regarding natural disasters and other catastrophic scenarios are appropriate and of substantial rigor. This post is not intended to "Monday morning quarterback" the preparedness or response to this storm, but to highlight some lessons that can be learned and policies that should be examined and strengthened going forward to increase our resilience against future events.
A resilient society is one that is resistant to the negative impacts and can quickly recover from disasters. They cannot be prevented, but there are ways that we can better prepare for the next occurrence. Two key ideas that I will discuss are the need to reduce single points of failure that can lead to cascading failures of several of our needed infrastructures, and the need to develop more realistic "worst case" disaster planning scenarios.
Electricity is our foundational critical infrastructure. All of the other infrastructures, including water, sewage, telecommunications, finance, transportation, etc. all rely on electrical power to remain operational. Over 3 million people lost power due to the storm; some still are without power as of the time of this writing. If the power outages are widespread enough - as they were in this case - other critical infrastructures such as water are affected because those facilities rely on electrical pumps. Such cascading effects quickly multiply, so loss of power quickly multiplies into loss of water, gas, communications, food, and other life- and society-sustaining infrastructures.
It is essentially impossible to de-couple our various infrastructures so that they are not affected by power outages. That being the case, it is of critical importance that we harden our electrical grids to better deal with natural disasters (as well as accidents and malicious attacks). One particular scenario that is the focus of my current work is the eventual occurrence of a massive geomagnetic disturbance (GMD) caused by violent solar activity and its interaction with the Earth's magnetic field. Such an event, if it happened today, could knock out power on national, continental, or even global scales. There is an urgent need to physically harden our electrical system to better withstand this threat, as well as storms like Sandy and other natural disasters.
Providing for a more resilient electrical grid will require better vegetation management, and more robust wind, water, ice, seismic and electromagnetic withstand capabilities for the electrical infrastructure. To be sure we make the proper investments, a rational, cost-effective analysis can be done if we plan with an eye towards more severe weather and other threats.
This brings me to the second topic: planning based upon realistic worst-case disaster scenarios. In the specific case of the Sandy super-storm, historical meteorological data did not provide the projections necessary to properly prepare us for the storm. The confluence of events that resulted in an East-Coast hurricane colliding with another storm from the north is not a historically usual occurrence. It can be described as a High Impact, Low-Frequency (HILF) event. With a warming climate, more severe weather will continue to occur, and planning scenarios that take into account more violent storms and other HILF events than we have encountered in the past are necessary.
Last month, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) voted unanimously to improve the reliability of the electric grid by issuing two Notices of Proposed Rulemaking (NOPR). The first is a revised vegetation management standard, and the second is for development of new standards to address the impacts of GMD on the electric grid. The North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), the Electric Reliability Organization (ERO) that develops and enforces the standards, last year convened a GMD Task Force (on which I am proud to serve) to study the issue, and has years-long experience with vegetation management. The development of robust standards in both of these areas is one example of the type of forward-looking preparation that can make our grid more resilient to these disasters.
While the new standards were not ready for this storm, there will be others, and some will certainly be severe. Severe terrestrial and solar weather are both direct threats to the electric grid that we rely upon for the existence of our society. A robust standard, developed with more rigorous worst-case disaster planning will help us better weather the next disaster.The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for National Policy.
|SUBSCRIBE TO THIS AUTHOR|