Tag Archive for shelter

Storm Survival: A Case Study of Mass Power Outages

Hurricane Sandy about to impact Mid-Atlantic

With plenty of warning on the approaching super storm Sandy, one known impact will be massive power outages stretching up and down the East Coast.  Sandy is unprecedented in its size, track, and confluence of fronts, tides, and moon phase.  All of this will combine for what will be a once in a lifetime, 100 year storm.  As such, we may not have a similar event to compare in modern times, but we do have a glimpse of how catastrophic even a short regional collapse of the power grid looks, which should serve as a lesson and warning.  The following two case studies illustrate the widespread effects of what should be considered relatively minor and focused events in comparison to Hurricane Sandy.

The August 2003 Cascade Failure of the North East

On a hot August day in 2003, a string of seemingly innocuous events led to an estimated 55 million people losing power across the Northeast and Canada.  On August 14th of 2003, the nation was experiencing usual high temperatures during the dog days of August, which increased the demand on the power grid.  This increase in demand coupled with some seemingly minor mistakes, software glitches, and oversights by the power company led to a major collapse of the grid.  This cascade of power outages began as power lines heating up from the increased current, sagged, and then came into contact with trees.  These lines went down causing power to be immediately switched to other lines, quickly overloading them, and causing them to also shut down.  This further triggered automatic shutdowns, redirection, and overloads of an ever increasing area of the grid.  Within two hours, multiple grids had separated and shutdown leaving most of New England and Ontario without power.  Immediately, TV and radio stations, cable, and the internet without reliable backup power were knocked offline.  Untold numbers were trapped in elevators, electric trains, and subways.  Temperatures in homes and business began to rise to dangerous levels for the elderly and frail as air conditioners lost power.  Traffic signals and street lights also went dark snarling traffic in cities like New York.  Soon big factories, refineries, and local businesses were shutdown causing immediate backlogs in supplies and fuel prices to spike.  Even Wall Street and the United Nations went dark.  Making the situation worse, gas stations were unable to pump and vehicles became stranded as they ran out of gas.  Looting began to break out in the dark streets of many cities by nightfall, but no one could dial 911 because the 911 service was also offline and both cellular and hard-wired phones were overloaded.  What responders were available were already over tasked dealing with everything from traffic control to freeing people trapped in elevators.  In short, no one was coming to help in the near future.  Soon backup generators began to fail and compound the crisis.  This lead to cellular networks going down, hospitals losing power to critical life support equipment, and municipal water systems failing.  Failing municipal water systems led to contamination of drinking water and massive amounts of raw sewage escaping into local waterways.  Water became non-potable without boiling, if you could even get it from your tap.  Restaurants and other food focused business were then forced to close even if they had backup power because of the health risks of untreated water to the public.  Even if they remained open, electronic registers, ATMs, and credit card services were rendered useless without power causing most other stores to also close.  Emergency services were simply overwhelmed.  A few simple acts…a tree falling, a power company operator not paying attention, and some ignored alarms and suddenly 55 million people are stranded in the dark, all within a couple hours.  This is illustrative of just how fragile our society is and how quickly things can deteriorate.  Communication, sanitation, emergency services, financial markets, and logistics and supply networks all broke down within 120 minutes bringing the world’s sole superpower to a grinding halt, but could it happen again?  Could it have been worse?  The answer is a definite yes.

July 4th Holiday Storm of 2012

Some may disagree that these ripple failures could occur again and think that the grid has improved.  Consider the unexpected severe outbreak of storms that ripped across the mid-Atlantic just before the July 4th holiday of 2012.  This band of storms had wind speeds that reached hurricane force on the leading edge of the front that shredded trees bringing down thousands of power lines from Ohio to D.C.  Immediately, tens of millions were again plunged into darkness during a record heat wave where daytime highs exceeded 100 degrees.  No air conditioning, no refrigeration, no lights.  For those with their own wells, water was also shut off.  Within hours store shelves were stripped bare of essentials like bottled water, ice, batteries, flashlights, and food.  Gas stations also shut down and anyone without cash relying on credit cards or ATMs was out of luck.  Vehicles ran out of fuel, AMTRAC trains were stranded, elevators stopped, and 911 services were disrupted just like in 2003.  Many cell towers and hard line phones were also knocked out by severe lightening.  Soon water services to city areas began to break down and mandatory boiling of drinking water rules were put into effect for those still with water pressure.  In parts of West Virginia, the state hardest hit, nearly every county was without power and the outage persisted for up to two weeks in many areas.  This was just one afternoon storm and proves that even after almost a decade since the massive 2003 blackout and billions of tax dollars being funneled into infrastructure improvements and repairs; the North American Power Grid is as vulnerable as ever.  Some may suggest this is the effects of “global warming,” but a closer examination reveals some much simpler truths.  In fact, graft, corruption, and bureaucracy seem to be the real culprits and have siphoned off most of those funds dedicated to updating the power grid.  Things may have actually gotten worse not better.  To this day, one can easily see this truth as trees grow over, around, and through power line right of ways that haven’t been maintained in years.  Remember, it is hard to have a tree knock down a power line if the tree is not hanging over it.  In both examples, it all happened in a matter of a few hours!  What one should take away from this is that things are trending worse and not better.  You can be sure that massive power outages and brownouts will not only become more frequent, but persist longer even while you pay higher and higher electric bills.

The case studies highlight what many people experienced during rapidly collapsing conditions post power failure.  Hurricane Sandy will dwarf the impacts of the above case studies.  The mandatory safety regulations governing the operation of nuclear reactors in the United States during storms will automatically force the shutdown of at least 12 nuclear reactors in the storm’s path.  This event alone will mean tens of millions will lose power for at least 48 hours even with grid rerouting.  Americans across the entire East Coast WILL experience sustained disruptions and should expect and prepare for the following:

  • No power for one to two weeks
  • Fuel shortages
  • Inability to use ATMs or credit/debit cards
  • Cellular communications to fail within 48-72 hours
  • Hard line phone disruptions
  • Water disruptions, contamination, and shutdowns
  • Civil disturbances in urban areas
  • Overwhelmed emergency services to include failure of 911 services
  • Runs on food, water, batteries, and fuel (store shelves stripped empty)
  • Financial market disruptions
  • Stranded travelers and vehicles running out of fuel
  • Mail and trucking disruptions (no supplies getting to affected areas)
  • Widespread low-lying flooding
  • Down trees, power lines, and roof damage
  • Blizzard conditions with up to three feet of snow in some areas

At minimum, everyone in the possible strike zone should immediately prepare respective of your location and specific circumstances.  Although you are now well within the “Last Minute,” here is what you can still do to prepare.  At minimum ensure you have done the following with the expectation of at least two weeks of self-sufficiency:

  • Have plenty of cash on hand
  • Fill your vehicle(s) and fuel containers
  • Charge and/or buy fresh batteries
  • Operationally check critical equipment (vehicles, generator, chain saw, flashlights, etc.)
  • Procure a generator, extension cords, work lights and bulbs if possible
  • Procure chainsaw, extra blades, fuel oil mix, safety glasses, gloves, and bar lube if possible
  • Stage all gear such as flashlights, candles, and lanterns so you can find them in the dark
  • Charge all cell phone and other portable electronic batteries
  • Contact family members, neighbors, and friends to coordinate a disaster plan
  • Ensure multiple people know your location, situation, and plans for storm
  • Consolidate family and those members least able to take care of themselves
  • Consolidate supplies with others if you are in the most dire circumstances
  • Prepare to evacuate low-lying areas and sand bag against high water
  • Move any important items to upper levels of home in low-lying areas
  • Stage duct tape, nylon rope, and tarps in the event of roof damage from heavy rain
  • Trim any branches or trees immediately threatening buildings or parked cars
  • Secure any loose items outdoors
  • Buy or store at least one gallon of water per person, per day (plan for 14 days)
  • Buy or store high calorie, non-perishable food stuffs to include staples like powdered milk
  • Make sure any issues such as bald tires are fixed and maintenance completed on vehicles
  • Security plan if you plan to evacuate or hold at your residence
  • Assemble, inspect, and stage medical kit(s) at home and in your vehicles
  • Have hard copies of maps in all vehicles (don’t rely on GPS)
  • Have extra supply of any essential medications
  • Do remember your pets and prepare for their welfare
  • Make sure you have a radio with batteries, preferably a weather radio
  • Do stay calm, make a plan, and execute
  • Do monitor local news and emergency reports

The safest place will likely be at your home so stay put if you don’t have to travel.  However, if you live in a coastal or low-lying area and need to evacuate, leave as soon as possible and try to stay with a friend or family before resorting to local shelters where conditions may be less than comfortable.

It is always better to prepare early and often, but it is never too late to improve your situation.  Follow Last Minute Survival for the latest breaking news, tips, and information related to disaster preparedness and survival.  Last Minute Survival will soon be releasing a new book on survival strategies tailored to our readers so be the first to request free advanced copies.  Please plan smart and stay safe!