When Superstorm Sandy struck the northeastern United States with devastating ferocity on 29 October 2012, a huge swath of the country lost electricity. Homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed, and many people died.
The Department of Energy (DOE) reported that the hurricane knocked out power to about 8.6 million people, including nearly 100,000 who lost electricity from the nor’easter that hit a few days later. All told, 24 states were affected”from Florida to Maine, and as far west as Wisconsin.
Most people know that when disasters such as this strike, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, springs into action. What you might not know is that DOE also mobilizes, particularly through its Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability (DOE-OEDER).
Patricia Hoffman, an assistant secretary in the OEDER, was so busy responding to Sandy she was unable to be a featured plenary speaker at the 2012 IEEE International Conference on Technologies for Homeland Security (HST). The IEEE event opened just 15 days after Sandy wreaked havoc.
So Hoffman asked Stewart Cedres, director of DOE’s Infrastructure Security and Energy Restoration Division, to replace her. The division is responsible for coordinating the department’s response to energy emergencies. Sandy certainly qualified.
The government’s response to”and preparations for”natural disasters fit well into the IEEE Homeland Security Conference. Energy, information technology and communications are three of the 18 critical infrastructure sectors the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has identified as “essential to the nation’s security, public health and safety, economic vitality, and way of life.”
Cedres was one of four plenary speakers at HST ’12. Another was Paul Benda, director of the DHS Science and Technology Directorate’s Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Cedres said during his presentation that after 9/11 in 2001, the United States began focusing more on threats from terrorism. But in 2005, the “one-two punch” of Hurricanes Katrina (a category 3 storm) and Rita (category 5) drew attention to catastrophic weather events “because they also have an impact on homeland security.”
Once a disaster strikes and energy resources are damaged, DOE coordinates with DHS”which includes FEMA”the private sector, state and local governments, the Department of Transportation, and the affected utilities (electricity, oil, natural gas).
The DHS Infrastructure Protection and Disaster Management Division “is looking at how we respond to disasters,” Benda said during his public remarks. “How do we provide capabilities after an incident like Sandy? How can we get the electric grid stood up more quickly? How do we provide disaster assistance to people more quickly?”
Modern Life Depends on Power
One of the most disruptive aspects of a major storm, or other natural disaster, is loss of power. We are so used to having light at our fingertips and charging our smartphones any time of the day, that we take electricity reliability for granted.
But for those without generators, loss of grid power for an extended period of time means, among other things, your food goes bad and your heating and air conditioning don’t work. If you have an electric water heater, you can’t even take a hot bath or shower. And many people’s jobs depend on electricity to run their printers, copiers and computers.
IEEE Fellow Dr. Luis Kun, a professor of national security affairs at the National Defense University Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies in Washington, D.C., knows this well.
“All infrastructures are dependent on electricity and telecommunications, and more so now than ever because we’re in the information age,” Kun said. “So we have become very dependent with converging technologies. In some ways, this is good news. It’s also bad news, because if any of these things go down, you have an incredible cascading effect–with unintended consequences.”
Lack of power can devastate sectors like commerce and transportation.
“That’s basically what happened with something like Sandy,” Kun said by telephone in January. “People realized, “we don’t have power, so we can’t take money from banks and ATMs,’ or “we might not be able to pump gas because the pumps are not working.'”
Using Technology to Improve Disaster Relief
A major challenge FEMA and local jurisdictions have in managing a disaster is that stricken areas are often unsafe.
“People have evacuated and want to get back to their home, if their home’s still standing,” Benda said. “If their home survived, can they actually return to that, or do they have a total loss?
Benda added that DHS is working with government agencies that gather satellite imagery of affected areas. Existing technology could improve the reliability and transmission of information about the condition of one’s home.
“How can we get that [information] in the hands of people much more quickly?” Benda said. “At a disaster assistance center, why can’t you type in your address on a Web-based login and pull up imagery of your house that’s 12 hours old, that shows whether your house is there or not? And if your house is destroyed, why can’t we have algorithms that can tell that house is destroyed, and just have a button they can press that says “apply for disaster assistance?'”
“You put your bank account information in, and FEMA automatically deposits a check in there, so you can go stay at a hotel, and you get the disaster assistance that you need.”
Being Better Prepared
Cedres spoke at length during HST ’12 about emergency preparedness“which he described as “a key component of homeland security”“and said one of DOE’s major focuses is on energy emergency preparedness.
“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail,” he said, quoting Benjamin Franklin.
In March 2011, President Barack Obama issued Presidential Policy Directive / PPD-8: National Preparedness, “aimed at strengthening the security and resilience of the United States through systematic preparation for the threats that pose the greatest risk to the security of the Nation, including acts of terrorism, cyber attacks, pandemics, and catastrophic natural disasters.”
“It doesn’t just focus on response or protection, but also focuses on prevention,” Cedres said. “It focuses on mitigation”which is resiliency”and it focuses on long-term recovery. It takes a whole-community approach. It recognizes that preparedness is not just a federal government problem; it’s also a private-sector problem–involving universities, citizens, and others.”
Cedres thinks highly of the directive’s coordination of responsibilities.
“It forces us to work together, because it talks about building relationships,” he said. “And one of the things we have to learn from years of responding to events–whether it’s a hurricane or an earthquake, or whatever–is that we understand the importance of coordination, when the event takes place.
“We cannot fix the problem alone; we need to work together.”
Chris McManes is IEEE-USA’s public relations manager.