The aftermath of the Derecho storm that exploded across the upper midwest to mid-Atlantic on Friday has exposed a series of cascading dependencies. None of these dependencies are surprising. But the scope and scale of the event offers a very public case-study for what is usually obscured in the rapid response to smaller events.
I will focus mostly on the National Capital Region, because that’s where I experienced the event.
Friday’s record-breaking heat in the Washington DC area reached 104 degrees. An unexpected late afternoon meeting kept me in the capital until rush-hour. The air-conditioning in my car failed. I bailed off I-395 and got a hotel room. I was given a room on the top — eleventh — floor. The room’s AC was struggling. No doubt the roof-top temperature was much higher than 104.
At about 10:45 I was awakened by a high pitched squeal. My room faced West-Southwest. Straightline winds — estimated at 60 to 90 miles-per-hour — were pushing against the window and whistling through its frame.
A tall wall of lighting filled the far Western horizon. It rolled toward me, swamping the glittering urban landscape. As the strobe dance of lightening approached, it was as if a black wave covered the ground. A mile away a blazing bright tower suddenly disappeared. I was next. No lights. No air air conditioning. No way to open the windows.
Roughly 1.3 million people in the National Capital Region lost power on Friday night. On Sunday morning the Washington Post’s lead story reports, “As the region suffered through a second day of 100-degree-plus heat, power companies said it could take up to a week before everyone has electricity again.”
Because of the loss of power, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, serving much of the Maryland suburbs, was unable to refill its water system over-night. With another record-breaking hot day on Saturday, there was the threat of the system being sufficiently drained to lose system integrity. Mandatory water restrictions were put in place. (Once a water system experiences negative-pressure it can take weeks to clean and recover system integrity.) Other water utilities were also calling for reduced usage and issuing boil orders.
Because of the loss of power, many service stations were unable to pump gas. My wife was unable to fill up in Charlottesville (VA), found an open station in the Shenandoah Valley, needed gas again in Charleston (WV) and after passing closed station after closed station, sat in a line for nearly an hour with her gauge on E. The station was only taking cash because their credit-card verification connection was offline.
When my wife called me she was about to leave the gas line, frustrated and angry with all the “cheaters.” I was able to tell her the utility map showed severe outages extending West to Huntington and into Kentucky. Later she called to confirm she would have been stranded if she had not gotten gas when she did. She also reported periodic traffic congestion much greater (and weirder) than the typical start of the Independence Day weekend. Her speculation was that a lot of people were out looking for functioning grocery stores, gas stations, and such.
I returned to our Blue Ridge mountain-top very early Saturday morning and while I am, obviously, online and was able to use my smartphone at the height of the storm, there are increasing reports of communications problems. According to the Washington Post:
Cellular and Internet services were down after Friday night’s storm (http://wapo.st/KSPWn8 ), as reports of slow or intermittent service came in from Virginia, Maryland and the District. A Verizon representative confirmed that there had been “voice outage and no signal” in parts of Virginia, including Herndon, Manassas and Woodbridge. In a statement, Verizon said that as commercial power was being restored, some services would come back and that they were working to fix service.
AT&T is also reporting outages, including to some land-line phones. Several 911 centers were blacked out or had functional problems as a result of electrical failures. Even redundant systems, with emergency power back-ups, in some cases failed. There has not yet been time to determine the full cause.
This was a high-impact event doing direct damage to a variety of infrastructures. The scale of destruction and disruption was considerable. The geographic scope of the event was much greater than typical. This scope-and-scale is straining recovery capabilities. Electric utilities are, for example, needing to call on mutual aid from much farther away than usual.
We all know, but do not always acknowledge, our dependence on the grid, on the water system, on the fuel distribution network, on the credit-and-debit card verification system, et cetera, et cetera. Events like this force us to recognize our reality. Will this event encourage more attention to systemic mitigation? Probably not in a sustainable or systematic way.
Even with the death, destruction, and discomfort this is far from a catastrophe.
But… on Sunday morning the Weather.com forecast is headlined: Hot, Humid and Hellish. Clearly public safety agencies and the population have been proactive in minimizing day-after effects. How about three days after… five days after? What if the response-and-recovery period is punctuated by another hard hit?
Speaking Saturday to news media at the Virginia Emergency Operations Center, Governor Bob McDonnell said, “This is a very dangerous situation… It will take several days to restore all power, so Virginians should plan accordingly. This is not a one-day situation; it is a multiday challenge.” The same could be said for a wide region extending back to the Great Lakes.
A potential catastrophe unfolds over time and space, cascading across an ever-expanding landscape, exposing and uncoupling dependencies as it goes. The potential for catastrophe increases as the cascades recur in the same space with increasing frequency. So far this is just another tough time that we will, probably, treat as a rare event rather than a leading indicator.
MONDAY MORNING UPDATE:
More than 600,000 electric utility customers in the National Capital Region continue without power. Some of the utilities in the mid-Atlantic do not expect to achieve the 90 percent restoration benchmark before Friday.
The same storm that hit the DC metro area pummeled Ohio with even more force. Initially 1 million Ohioans were without power, as of Monday morning 200,000 remain in the dark. In West Virginia 500,000 remain power-less and the Governor ordered non-essential state workers to stay home today.
Public transit in the National Capital Region is mostly operating at full capacity.
The Federal government and most private employers will open for business-as-usual in Washington.
The weather forecast for the Washington DC area is for a high of 95 degrees. Similar highs are predicted for the remainder of the week.
The following is excerpted from the Sunday Charleston (WV) Gazette-Mail:
The storm, which swept from the Great Lakes to the Chesapeake Bay, devastated parts of Ohio, Maryland, New Jersey, Virginia and the District of Columbia. But West Virginia took the biggest hit, according to FirstEnergy.
“It affected it fairly catastrophically,” company spokesman Todd Meyers said Sunday.
“Parkersburg took the brunt of the storm, with 90-plus mile-per-hour winds.”
Forecasters on Friday predicted a number of storm cells, but no one expected a continuous line stretching from the Northern Panhandle to south of Huntington, Meyers said. “It blew across the entire state.
“In Ellenboro, a 500-kilovolt transmission line — it crunched three towers. That’s part of the interstate transmission grid, and it’s out.” Repair crews were at the scene Sunday, he said.
“They’ll build temporary structures and get that line back up by midweek, hopefully. Then in the fall, when you have less load, that’s when you’ll go back in and do permanent repairs.
“Our problem, why so many customers are out, this one damaged over 50 large transmission lines and 70 substations.”