Complex Mega Disasters and the Domino Effect on Public Utilities

As professionals engaged in planning for public utilities, we cannot ignore the current troubles in Japan.  Our hearts go out to that nation and its people. Most of all, we feel for the men and women who are now charged with the task of restoring their communities with the public utilities that we all take so much for granted.

A large portion of Japan is now depopulated. The wreckage of buildings and boats, along with millions of cubic yards of mud makes access to those who remain incredibly difficult.  In some areas, radiation will prevent crews from working on existing infrastructure for years to come.

It would be hard to imagine the design specifications that could have withstood the force of the first earthquake and the tsunami which followed.  It would be even harder for public utilities to fund such mega disaster-proof systems and facilities.  And tremors that would wreck most towns in America continue to disrupt daily life in that fated Asian nation.

Because we don’t live in Haiti or Chile or Japan, we feel protected.  But the fact is, we aren’t. Two hundred years ago this winter, the New Madrid Seismic Zone produced at least 3 temblors in the 7-8 magnitude range in the Central Mississippi Valley.  In 1929, a submarine earthquake off the Grand Banks caused a tsunami that affected the entire eastern seaboard and killed 28 people in Newfoundland.  Earth has never been a quiet place.

We’ve actually increased our vulnerability to earthquakes, tsunamis and major storms (see Katrina) by our reliance on technology. Irwin Redlener, Director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health warns of “complex mega disasters… a natural catastrophe overlaid by a technological situation.” As for the United States, “I would say the country is not well-prepared for a complex mega disaster,” Redlener said. “Our plans for responding to and preventing catastrophic events are extremely spotty and random. There is very little uniformity in the quality of preparedness planning and a disturbingly low level of citizen engagement in disaster planning, and this is all compounded by how we have greatly underfunded many of our planning efforts.”

Whether the cause is a reawakening of dormant faults, climate change, corporate mismanagement, geopolitical unrest or terrorist act is actually immaterial, because our ability to prevent is imperfect.  The potential Domino Effect on public utilities – serial damage to power plants, pipelines, electrical grids, transportation systems – is of primary importance, and must be prepared for. The social, economic and human costs of being ill-prepared are too great to calculate.

Some things for public utilities to consider:

  • If your worst-case is based on a Category 4, how will you deal with a Category 5?
  • If your system is designed for the “Hundred Year Storm,” how will you react to the 500 Year Storm?
  • If your pipelines can withstand a Magnitude 7, what will you do if it generates Magnitude 7.5?

These are some of the questions the Japanese experience has raised.  Is it unreasonable to at least consider answering them?

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