Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 1, 2012

Cascading consequences case-study (not catastrophic, so far)

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment — by Philip J. Palin on July 1, 2012

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 heatpower 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.


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.”

Other details on this region-wide no-notice (little notice) event from The Baltimore Sun and the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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Comment by Justin Kates

July 1, 2012 @ 7:20 am

These events are the ones that continue to keep me up at night. Very little warning, and mixing factors causing devastation that you would only expect from the “sexy” disasters.

I experienced a similar event this past October during the “Snowtober” event. Early snowfall didn’t seem too bad to much of the population during the forecasts. The resulting damage and debris from snow falling on trees still with their leaves lasted for months. Power was out for a week, and people weren’t ready. And it was just a snowstorm…

Comment by Philip J. Palin

July 1, 2012 @ 9:21 am

Mr. Kates, I like your term “mixing factors”. This is what I am trying to get at with attention to dependencies and cascades. Our relationships were once analog: three news channels all in black and white, usually predictably similar and continuous. We now live a multi-channel reality where the relationships — and potential conflicts — among the channels can quickly get complicated, complex, even chaotic. Trying to use analog strategies to engage this complexity tends to move the needle closer to chaos.

Comment by John Scoggin

July 1, 2012 @ 9:56 am

If you read this morning’s sitrep on HSIN, it’s all there – PSAPs down due to generator failures, loss of fiber connectivity, hospitals down due to generator failure — lack of planning, lack of maintenance, lack of caring. And it’s the same story every time we have a major storm.

Billions spent on radiation detectors that don’t work, but no money for simple preparedness. And no consequences for these recurring boneheaded problems!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

July 1, 2012 @ 10:42 am

Mr. Scoggin: Sounds like you’ve been around these issues before. Any judgment as to why we seem to perpetually under invest in mitigation? I don’t just mean money invested… but also time, energy, and attention.

Comment by Arnold Bogis

July 2, 2012 @ 12:04 am


First off, next time email me if you are stuck in the area. In this case I was particularly luckily–while I was eating a late dinner out when the storms hit my part of DC and a window broke in the restaurant, my electricity, phone, cable, air conditioning, and internet all remained uninterrupted.

Which brings me to my next point: these type of situations are unique in their geographic distribution of effect. Due to social circumstances, when I returned home after the worst part of the storm I did not put on the weather channel or local news. So I did not realize until the next day the widespread awful impact of this storm. And that is a large part of why I would guess that this event has little impact on mitigation or other related planning.

You hear about bad things. But after a bad storm one expects bad things. Why should I pay higher taxes or expect worse roads or less teachers or ______ to deal with occasional bad weather?

Is that a logically convincing argument? Probably not. Is that what will carry the day a few months from now when local budget priorities are being set?

I would bet yes.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

July 2, 2012 @ 3:05 am

Arnold, I am not sure (this is not a passive-aggressive counter, it is a statement of authentic uncertainty) that higher taxes or higher prices are a prerequisite to enhanced mitigation. I hypothesize it is a matter of attention, behavioral adjustments, and incremental change more than expensively sudden shifts. Perhaps a matter of eating mindfully and regular exercise rather than a dramatic diet or gastric bypass surgery. Maybe the analogy also suggests why mitigation is so seldom achieved.

Comment by The Indifference of Leadership From Corporate To the Ineptness in Governing to Parents....

July 2, 2012 @ 7:09 am

The lack of interest unless it happens to me and the failure to have local, state and federal budgets clearly show teh waste and fraud that should have seen monies going into trees pruned back by the electric company during the year, government having monies to truly be prepared, but rather spend and spend and spend having little interest in portraying the integrity which once made this country great and folks working together!

We are so unprepared and oh, such waste in monies…criminal! The apathy, the indifference can simply be seen in many parents today preferring to be texting instead of affording some parenting attention to the children…A society so dysfunctional and so self-absorbed…


Comment by Alan Wolfe

July 2, 2012 @ 7:41 am

I won’t belabor the obvious other than to note the potential case study here for a review of resiliency within the NCR. To wit, does it make any sense that the power companies can’t get back on-line within the same day after the thunderstorm/snowstorm? Or were the citizens considered “non-essential” and the govt services/critical services all back on line?

Comment by Donald Quixote

July 2, 2012 @ 9:00 am

Mother Nature is one thing; at least it was not an intentional interruption via an attack on our critical infrastructure through the numerous SCADA vulnerabilities. The amount of loss and time required to reinstitute and respond to this type of incident\attack would be more than a week in very uncomfortable temperatures and have much more significant cascading consequences.

This may be one more lesson learning opportunity that may be ignored. How many people\families had prepared for such an interruption of their lives as this? How many will learn from this experience? Unfortunately, the answer may be too few to both questions.

Priorities and planning – My ten year old car runs just fine. So does my generator and reserve fuel during times such as this……….

Comment by Philip J. Palin

July 2, 2012 @ 9:16 am

Mr. Tingus, Just to suggest how local conditions can vary: Last year a new utility took over the county where I live. They were very aggressive in cutting back trees on the right-of-way. Several, including me, mourned lost trees. But we understood and largely supported the goal. Despite that effort, more than half the county was without power over the weekend. Cooling and evacuation centers were set up in the schools, food was provided by the churches, local blue grass bands entertained. Many of those serving the displaced were teenagers. Lots of teenagers were out with chain-saws helping with clean-up. Instead of apathy, I have seen empathy and creativity and hard work.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

July 2, 2012 @ 9:21 am

Alan, I’m probably missing something obvious, but given the number and wide-distribution of power lines down, residential recovery lags “government” recovery because there is a lot more of it… and in the case of this event, government is much more likely to have buried lines than strung lines.

Recovery is also prioritized with water, health care, and public safety getting top attention… which tends to bring government back online earlier. But I get the impression you are suggesting something else?

Comment by Alan Wolfe

July 2, 2012 @ 2:25 pm

Hey Philip, you have a good point in differentiating public recovery from government recovery. But I would suggest that “continuation of operations” is one thing and mitigation/resiliency of govt essential services – to include power generation – is another. Maybe I’m being too harsh on Pepco and underestimating the number of downed power lines, but I would still expect that a study on resiliency might point out how our NCR needs to have better response/recovery/resiliency capabilities using an example of one storm’s effects.

No big whoop. Just sayin’ that this isn’t a new problem within the NCR,and as the capitol of the country, DC really ought to be better.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

July 2, 2012 @ 3:33 pm

Alan, Got’cha. My own tendency may be overly sympathetic to the enormous tactical task of post-event restoration… especially when the footprint is as big as this one. Functionally, I think it is too soon to tell. Sometime between Wednesday and Friday I expect there will be enough evidence to make a considered judgment.

Strategically, I think the really non-resilient choice was made when as a nation (as a planet) we tipped decisively in favor of the Westinghouse (Tesla) model of centralized electrical production rather than the Edison model of decentralized generation. There are market and technological opportunities that may allow for reconsidering that choice over the next generation. But a sudden, radical shift strikes me as unlikely, even when the innate vulnerabilities are so dramatically demonstrated.

Outside the NCR, for what it’s worth, American Electric Power is now estimating it will be at least Sunday before they restore service to 264,000 West Virginia customers currently without power. DC is not WV, but I expect the sweaty unease is similar.

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