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:
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.
April 25, 2007