Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


The Edge of Disaster by Stephen Flynn








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Homeland security expert Stephen Flynn presents plausible scenarios of our vulnerability to natural and terror-produced disaster in his new book The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation. While what Flynn presents is scary, his practical recommendations for change provide hope that some disasters may be averted. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 5, “Ailing Foundations,” pp. 68-70:


On August 14, 2003, the lights went out across the northeast­ern United States and southern Canada. It was the largest elec­trical failure in North American history. At the time of the blackout, I was in a cab heading for Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington County Virginia, intent on catching the next shuttle flight back to New York. Fortunately, the driver had the radio turned on, so I knew right away that my trip home to Connecticut was not going to work out as planned. Suspecting the worst, I called a friend at the De­partment of Homeland Security (DHS) to see if he knew what was going on. It turned out he had just heard about the blackout from his boss, who was one of the top officials at the department—reporting di­rectly to Tom Ridge, who was then the secretary. The senior DHS offi­cial had only a moment before found out about the outage. His source turned out to be his daughter, who had reached him by cell phone from a New York high-rise.

The cause of the massive blackout was not al-Qaeda or the kind of disaster the Department of Homeland Security was created to help protect us from. The subsequent investigation found that the trigger was some untrimmed trees in Ohio that had entangled themselves into three high-voltage power lines. The trees set off a chain of events that would lead to power plants being shut down from Ontario to New York. The final financial tally for the outage came to an estimated $6 billion to $10 billion.

Fifty million lives were disrupted. Some people were trapped in el­evators. Others had to feel their way along dark subway tunnels to reach emergency exits. Hotel guests in New York ended up sleeping on the street. Local New Yorkers had to hike several miles to get home. I was one of the lucky ones. I told the cabdriver to take me directly to the airport car rental agency. I managed to get a jump on the crowd of other displaced passengers who were making a beeline for the rental counters. It was an eerie sight when I reached New York near midnight on my long drive home. The world’s greatest city had plunged into complete darkness. I was seeing the night sky over Manhattan just as it would have appeared to the first Dutch settlers.

Power outages are the kind of thing that routinely bedevils the lives of people living in impoverished countries like Haiti or in war zones such as Baghdad. But why are we putting up with them here in the United States? If the great blackout of 2003 was a wake-up call, we seem to have hit the snooze button. Three summers later, in 2006, se­vere thunderstorms in the Saint Louis metropolitan area toppled trees on top of active power lines, and more than 700,000 homes and busi­nesses found themselves without power during a heat wave. The power outage lasted several days, leaving many people to swelter in­side their redbrick homes and causing real hardship for the poor and elderly, who quickly lost food and medications that required refrig­eration. An investigation into a four-day blackout in 2004 had cited the local power utility Ameren, for skimping on its tree-cutting budget.

Not trees but age and heavy use appear to be the source of a week-long power failure in the Queens borough of New York City in July 2006. Failures of ten of twenty-two aged underground power lines left more than 100,000 people in the dark, including many living in high-rise apartment buildings that depend on power to keep their elevators moving. The average age of the damaged transformers in the outage was thirty-one years. Reportedly, none of the power lines was operat­ing above its emergency rating when the power went out. They failed anyway.

At nearly the same time, on the opposite coast, California authori­ties were poised to institute rolling blackouts to deal with triple-digit temperatures. The state utility established a plan that required busi­nesses to cut or reduce their demand on the power grid. Despite the calls for conservation, demand peaked at 50 megawatts, a level 21 per­cent higher than what California had been using at the peak of the state’s 2000—200 1 energy crisis. When asked about the measures the state utility was undertaking to avert a power failure during the heat wave, an official from the California Independent System Operator, which transmits 80 percent of the state’s electricity, said, “We’ve got to keep our fingers crossed that everything stays working.”


To become better informed on this topic, read The Edge of Disaster, and consider the action you can take to make us better prepared for the likely possibilities that we face.


Steve Hopkins, April 25, 2007



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the May 2007 issue of Executive Times


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