Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

July 5, 2012

Derecho decouples dependencies: Who or what is responsible for the results?

Filed under: Catastrophes,Media,Preparedness and Response,Private Sector,Risk Assessment,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on July 5, 2012

Derecho forming in Midwest and barreling to the Mid-Atlantic

The implications of last week’s derecho are a matter of some debate. Please contribute to the debate through the comment function at the close of this post.

TIME: Friday. June 29, 2012.  Minimal notice.  Emerged in Southern Great Lakes during  mid-afternoon, hit National Capital Region between 10:30PM to 11:30PM.  (By statute the National Capital Region consists of the District of Columbia, 2 Maryland counties, 4 Virginia counties, and the City of Alexandria.)

SPACE: 650 miles deep (Northern Indiana to Atlantic seaboard), 270 miles wide (roughly Norfolk VA to Philadelphia PA).

CHARACTERISTICS: Fast-moving, averaging 60 miles per hour.  Hard hitting with sustained winds ranging between 60 to 90 miles-per-hour, very strong downbursts (and even stronger microbursts, producing tornado-like outcomes), widespread lightning strikes, and hail.  Wind-gusts of over 80 miles per hour were reported along an arc extending from Baltimore (MD) in the north to Richmond (VA) in the south.

Derecho’s are difficult to predict.  Most meteorologists are surprised the June 29 squall line survived its transit of the Appalachians.   Descending toward the coastal plain the derecho was quickly strengthened by the hot, humid atmospheric instability spawned by a record-breaking hot day.  The June 29 temperature in Washington DC had reached 104 degrees.

Again and again the June 29 derecho has been described as a “no-notice hurricane.”

FREQUENCY: Uncommon.  Usually less than one per year anywhere in North America.  Typically no more than one every four years in the mid-Atlantic.

CONSEQUENCES: Twenty-six deaths,  over 5 million without electricity for up to one week, widespread telecommunications outages (including 911 system failures), water quality concerns in West Virginia, suburban Maryland and other locations, transportation system stress due to reduced fuel pumping capabilities, traffic signal failures, and increased traffic, as a result of both the storm and Independence Day holiday.  Economic impact — from both physical destruction and loss-of-trade — not yet calculable.

ANALYSIS: Following is a Washington Post editorial that was written about 72 hours after the event.  It is, I suppose, a kind of consensus analysis.  I am concerned this consensus gives insufficient attention to several strategic realities.  The Post editorial board’s original analysis is in italics.  My counter-argument is indented non-italic.

Powerful storm exposes lack of disaster preparedness

THE FREAK SUMMER STORM that laid waste to much of the mid-Atlantic on Friday night left chaos in its howling wake — and a mess of questions about the region’s capacity to cope with the unexpected.

The issue is framed as the “capacity to cope”.  In this framing and throughout the editorial’s  analysis there is a predisposition to an effective response that will quickly and fully restore the prior condition.  This response-orientation is too narrow.

In Northern Virginia, where Verizon handles most 911 calls, emergency phone service simply did not exist for much of the weekend, even as residents scrambled to absorb a surge of bona fide emergencies. Suburban Maryland’s main power provider, Pepco, once again scrambled to restore electricity to hundreds of thousands of customers who have come almost to expect wildly inconvenient outages in extreme temperatures.

What these — and many other — examples point to is the increasingly interdependent character of the technological webs on which we have built our daily lives.  On most days these interdependencies generate substantial benefits.  But on bad days the same connections can be a collection of cascading vulnerabilities.   The rush-to-blame service providers is too easy and — more importantly — obscures fundamental issues of real risk readiness.

In both cases, residents of the national capital region could only wince as they imagined what might befall them in more cataclysmic circumstances — a terrorist attack targeting not just population centers but critical infrastructure, for instance — and pondered the painfully evident lack of disaster preparedness.

I agree this was not a cataclysm.  As bad as it was (still is for many), this was far short of a catastrophe.  I agree there is good cause for the National Capital Region to anticipate a real catastrophe.

But what sort of “preparedness” is  envisioned?  Is it preparedness to put Humpty-Dumpty together again?  The nursery rhyme  has already warned us in this regard.

Malicious intent — criminal, terrorist or otherwise — brings with it a psycho-social multiplier effect that deserves our attention.  But intentional threats often pale beside natural and accidental threats.  Consider the potential implications of a New Madrid seismic event or an accidental collapse of the regional grid.

“We have emergencies,” said Sharon Bulova, chairman of Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors. “Especially in the national capital region, we are susceptible to things happening, having public safety compromised.”

How, then, can the region be so ill-prepared?

I don’t expect to convince anyone who has been sweating out the power outage since Friday night, but the pace of restoration has seemed to me reasonably rapid.

When a hurricane or blizzard is forecast, the owners/operators of critical infrastructure have a day or more to prepare.  This event-specific preparation often involves pre-deploying and enhancing response assets.  If at all possible, additional electrical and telecommunications repair crews will be brought in from other regions outside the cone-of-uncertainty. The general population, famously, stocks up in advance and — in the case of hurricanes — may move out of the way.

On June 29, even if someone had gone to red alert as the derecho crossed the Ohio River, the realities of time and space eliminated this kind of preparation.  That’s why no-notice — or minimum notice — events are so fundamentally different than hurricanes or blizzards or — with recent advances in weather prediction — even tornadoes.

That’s the question for leaders to contemplate as the cleanup continues. And not just elected leaders, but corporate ones too: Verizon and Pepco both owe the public a much more thorough accounting and, more to the point, explanation of why it is taking so long to set things right again.

It will always take “so long to set things right again” if we persist in the illusion that we can wait to respond or that our preparedness is mostly a matter of being ready to respond.  Given the nature of our interdependent systems and their shared vulnerability to non-typical events, we are much better served to focus on prevention, mitigation, and resilience.  We also ought to be more creative in conceiving and executing recovery operations.  Failures will recur.  Catastrophic failures of distributed interdependent engineered systems are  infrequent… but practically inevitable.

Verizon, for its part, has been opaque about the 911 service crash in Northern Virginia, furnishing only vague answers to questions about why its primary and backup power sources were vulnerable and what can be done to avoid a repetition.

Then there’s Pepco. In the annals of corporate spin control, the company’s unabashed announcement Monday that it planned to restore electricity to 90 percent of its Maryland and District customers by late in the evening of July 6 — seven days after the storm — must qualify for a special mention in the Lowered Bar Category.

Or are these examples of honest uncertainty and worst-case realism? One self-described  weather nerd told me, “A derecho is a 240-plus mile front of 80-plus simultaneous F-1 tornadoes.”   Yet by Tuesday midnight telecommunications systems were — if still a bit unstable — mostly working.  Electric utilities were reporting restoration of the network’s backbone and were turning to the very time  consuming process of reconnecting individual customers.  The number of National Capital Region outages had been reduced from about 1.5 million to less than 110,000 in less than four days for an uncommon, no-notice, very hard-hitting event.  Despite extraordinary heat the public health consequences have been modest.  The celebration of Independence Day on the National Mall proceeded.  (Contrast this with the situation in West Virginia where late Wednesday 280,000 remained without power, down roughly 50 percent from the peak on Friday night.)

Should customers for whom power comes back midweek really be impressed that they suffered for just four or five days instead of for seven? And what of the 10 percent of customers whose service will still not be back by Friday night? Are they condemned to a second weekend with no air conditioning or refrigeration?

All of us might take a few moments to consider the connections — technological and human — on which we depend.  What is the nature of these dependencies?  What is the consequence of — unexpectedly — losing these connections?  Is there anything we can do — now, today — to mitigate these consequences?

Consciously or not we typically make one of four choices regarding risk: 1) we transfer the risk to someone else, 2) we accept the risk, 3) we reduce the risk, or 4) we avoid the risk.  The Washington Post editors seem to be trying to transfer all the risk responsibility to Verizon, Pepco, and other providers.  Certainly these owners/operators should be held to high standards.

But any attempt to transfer all risk will only hide a high level of accepted risk.  The level of risk accepted will be even higher because it is hidden.

It is delusional and dangerous if we — each and all of us — do not accept at least equal responsibility for the kinds of risk outlined above.  What can each of us do to reduce the risk associated with the consequences of the most hard-hitting events?

It’s little consolation to imagine that some things might have been worse. Pepco, despite leaving hundreds of thousands of homeowners and businesses in the lurch, did manage to prioritize restoration of service to hospitals, nursing homes and, critically, Metro. Dominion Virginia Power was also able to restore electricity relatively quickly to hospitals in Northern Virginia as well as to the main jail in Fairfax County.

Damn with faint praise?  Might this just be an indication of planning, preparedness, and a mitigation strategy in action?

The storm gave rise to massive inconveniences and discomforts across the Washington area. Usefully, it also exposed the region’s absence of reliable fail-safes, spotty preparedness and sluggish response times in the face of emergencies. Now it’s up to leaders to identify and act on those shortcomings.

Yes.  We should treat this as a near-miss and learn every lesson possible.

But inconvenience and discomfort are the least of my concerns.  Someday a no-notice, potentially catastrophic disaster will keep power off for more than a week. Telecommunications will be similarly disrupted.  Fuel will be in short-supply.  Delivery of water, food, and pharma will be uncertain.  Our response may be further complicated by concern over biological, radiological, or some other potential contamination: natural, accidental, or intentional.

Leaders do have an important role to play.  Part of that role is attending carefully to improving response capabilities.  But even more important — and too often ignored — is identifying opportunities to prevent, mitigate, and improve resilience.

And it is not only a matter for political and corporate leaders.   Organizing our economy and much of our lives around various interdependent distributed networks involves both risks and rewards.  We tend to take the rewards for granted and deny the risks.  This is irresponsible.  It is unrealistic.  It is a recipe for catastrophe.

Share and Enjoy:
  • Digg
  • Reddit
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Google Bookmarks
  • email
  • Print
  • LinkedIn


Comment by Charles Brownstein

July 5, 2012 @ 2:15 pm

The event was rare – a true no notice broad disaster. Should be a good basis for real planning given the electrical and communications issues. But it will take real leadership to get beyond the Washington Post criticism of Pepco and on to the real issues. I don’t see that happening this year given the disaster rolling on in our fragile electoral system.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

July 5, 2012 @ 4:02 pm

Mr. Brownstein, Thanks. I would add the geographic scope of the event, and the implications of this scope for resilience, restoration, and recovery. Scope combined with rarity and no-notice will, I agree, be very promising for after-action analysis. Busy and tired people are still too stressed to share much, but many have already shared bits by email.

NASA has released some more visuals that underline the surprise and scope: http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/derecho.html

Comment by Mike Cooksey

July 10, 2012 @ 11:19 am

An 83 year old woman I help out fell and broke her arm and injured her leg and hip the morning of June 30th. 2 hours later I arrived to check on her and take her out grocery shopping. She had been on the floor for 2 to 4 hours unable to reach a phone. Life alert did not work because the phones did not work. Cell service did not work. Power was out and so were the street lights.

In a few short hours this became deeply personal and not just academic.

After numerous frantic attempts to contact emergency services, a neighbor went out onto a busy highway and flagged down a fire marshal to ask her to radio for an ambulance. 3 hours later one arrived. Her days of independent living are over. The apartment is being emptied and an assisted living facility is being found.

How much assures do we get from government officials that all they have done will work. The money, the egos, the careers built for this moment, which failed. What happens to those local, state, and federal employees who built a system that did not work as promised? What happens to the companies who told us not to worry only to see it fail?


There will be promotions and awards and excuses and perhaps just more money thrown at it. But accountability will not be there.

We are so good at talking the talk. Not impressed, not impressed at all.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

July 11, 2012 @ 4:32 am

Mr. Cooksey, The woman is very fortunate you persisted in your care. This is only one such example of system failure and near-failure. As I have tried to set out (and will address again on Friday) there is likely to be an even more profound system failure in the future.

Comment by Mike Cooksey

July 12, 2012 @ 7:06 am

Philip, I have no doubt you are right. This is not about Administrations or party, this is about the structure and accountability (lack thereof) of Government (local, state, and federal). Absent that accountability, new careers, new empires will be built (A new E.O. is out) by the same GS15s that failed before. Emergency Services and preparedness is NOT a function individual citizens can perform. This IS what our taxes should address, yet………………………………………….

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a comment

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>