Taking lessons from Hurricane Sandy

November 2, 2012 by Jason Kornwitz
Stephen Flynn, the founding co-director of Northeastern’s George J. Kostas Research Institute for Homeland Security, suggests that the key to withstanding natural disasters lies in taking care of our nation’s critical infrastructure. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

Hur­ri­cane Sandy killed dozens and left mil­lions in the dark. Stephen Flynn, the founding co-​​director of Northeastern's George J. Kostas Research Insti­tute for Home­land Secu­rity, and an expert in com­mu­nity resilience and crit­ical infra­struc­ture pro­tec­tion, sug­gests that the key to with­standing such fierce nat­ural dis­as­ters lies in taking care of our nation's crit­ical infrastructure.

Hurricane Sandy has killed at least 59 people, including 22 in New York City. Are deaths caused by natural disasters inevitable? If not, what more could be done to spare the lives of those living in their path?

We will never likely reach a point where major nat­ural dis­as­ters won't involve the tragic loss of life—dis­as­ters have too many unpre­dictable elements. But we should always feel oblig­ated to honor the lives so trag­i­cally lost by taking the time to learn the lessons of what went wrong and why. Then we should commit our­selves to becoming better pre­pared and more resilient when dis­as­ters next strike. There is much that we can be doing as indi­vid­uals, com­pa­nies, com­mu­ni­ties, regions and as a nation to better antic­i­pate disasters.

There are also proven cost-​​effective mea­sures that we can under­take in advance that will mit­i­gate the harm dis­as­ters cause and bol­ster the speed at which we recover. One thing we must stop doing is neglecting our nation's crit­ical infra­struc­ture such as trans­porta­tion sys­tems, the elec­tric grid, and waste-​​water treat­ment sys­tems that underpin our daily lives. When these sys­tems become brittle because of age and overuse, they will fail badly as they have in New York City. Sadly, it seems to take a major dis­aster to gen­erate the polit­ical will to tackle the things that common sense should have told us would be best done in advance.

In speaking to those affected by Hurricane Sandy, President Obama said, "We are standing behind you, and we are going to do everything we can to help you get back on your feet." Mitt Romney, on the other hand, sponsored a canned food drive in the swing state of Ohio and has argued that disaster relief should be decentralized. In your opinion, what roles should the federal and local governments play in the recovery effort of a region-wide natural disaster?

Under our fed­er­alism form of gov­ern­ment, dis­aster response and relief has always been decen­tral­ized—mayors and gov­er­nors are in charge of inci­dents that happen in their jurisdictions. The fed­eral government's role has his­tor­i­cally been to pro­vide assis­tance when local and state capa­bil­i­ties are overwhelmed. It has played this role in every major dis­aster dating back to the San Fran­cisco Earth­quake of 1906 when more than 4,000 troops from the U.S. Army's Pacific Divi­sion were mobi­lized to pro­vide emer­gency relief including con­structing tem­po­rary housing for 20,000 sur­vivors. So the real ques­tion the pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates should be debating is: how proac­tive of a role does the fed­eral gov­ern­ment play?

My view is that the role of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment must grow as the scale of dis­as­ters has grown. Dis­as­ters like Hur­ri­cane Sandy increas­ingly involve mul­tiple states. To coor­di­nate a rapid and effec­tive response and recovery requires pre­plan­ning. And part of any thoughtful pre­plan­ning should be an appro­priate dis­cus­sion about what states and local­i­ties should be doing in advance to mit­i­gate the risk that likely dis­as­ters will not cause need­less loss of life and prop­erty. Rel­e­gating the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to the kind of pas­sive response and recover role that the George W. Bush admin­is­tra­tion had assigned to FEMA prior to 2005, prac­ti­cally guar­an­tees we will wit­ness future replays of the kind of inept response we saw after Hur­ri­cane Katrina.

According to the Department of Energy, Hurricane Sandy left more than 8 million people without lights, heat, TV or Internet, underscoring the vulnerability of the nation's power grid. How great is the possibility of a terrorist attack on the U.S. electric grid—and how damaging could it be?

What Hur­ri­cane Sandy has helped to high­light is that not only can dis­as­ters lead to short-​​term elec­trical power out­ages, but they can also damage crit­ical com­po­nents of the power grid that require con­sid­er­able time to replace. Con­verting the voltage gen­er­ated by power plants into the elec­tricity we use in our homes is done at sub­sta­tions that house sophis­ti­cated equip­ment such as transformers. This equip­ment is costly and time con­suming to replace and there are not many spares. So when salt-​​water flooding dam­ages these sub­sta­tions, it can take sev­eral weeks to con­duct repairs.

When these are iso­lated events, there are typ­i­cally other ways for utility com­pa­nies to restore power to most users. It would be very wor­ri­some, how­ever, if mul­tiple sys­tems were dam­aged as a result of ter­rorist cyber-​​attacks that exploit known vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties in the indus­trial con­trol sys­tems that are essen­tial to oper­ating the elec­tric grid. The con­se­quence of such an attack would be to cause the kind of out­ages that left so many in the dark after Hur­ri­cane Sandy—but those out­ages would last sev­eral months.

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1 / 5 (2) Nov 02, 2012
Here's a novel approach to surviving such a storm: When you have a week's notice that a powerful storm is headed your way, get the f^#@ out of there!

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