Here’s a stream of consciousness prompted by this week’s power outages in the DC area, now in their fourth day for many people…
The Capital Weather Gang and others tell us that nature’s trigger for the Friday night outages was a derecho. Never heard the term before? You’ve got plenty of company – some of it distinguished. Two professional meteorologists – leaders in our field – told me in separate, unrelated phone conversations that they’d never heard the term before this weekend’s event. That’s understandable…the Wikipedia article on derechos tells us that usage of the term only goes back to 1888.
In any case, we all know by now that the term describes a straight-line windstorm driven by a line of thunderstorms.
The consequences here have been extreme. Power outages initially affecting over one million people in the DC area (let alone further west along the storm’s track, which extended all the way back to Chicago). Several deaths due to fallen tree limbs, and several heat deaths resulting from the extreme temperatures which have prevailed over the area since. And it wasn’t just residential power that was affected. The storm brought down Amazon’s cloud servers…and many of its high-profile customers, including Netflix and Pinterist…while raising fears that even some federal government agencies may be vulnerable. Fairfax County’s 911 emergency phone service lost both primary and backup systems and was reduced to 50% of function. With more and more people opting for VOIP phone systems, once-reliable landline communication has proved hit-or-miss. Many gasoline stations couldn’t pump gas, resulting in long lines at those stations that were still operating. ATM machines shut down, even as some stores were reverting to cash only. Groceries lost huge inventories due to spoilage.
The result has been an outcry. A lot of splenetic commentary across all broadcast and social media about PEPCO, a perennial whipping boy, and even some scattered complaints about Dominion Virginia Power this time around. The House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hopes to hold a hearing, prior to the August recess, on cloud computing and its vulnerabilities. Some are calling for utility lines to be put underground. And this morning’s Washington Post featured an editorial entitled The Crash of 2012 suggesting that the region’s leaders need to do some soul-searching about our lack of preparedness.
That preparedness has to extend to our own, individual level, doesn’t it? One colleague has shared by e-mail that as a result of this weekend’s events she’s rethinking her own emergency preparedness plan.
Hopefully hers is not an isolated instance.
Speaking of preparedness, where do you stand with respect to the following idea? Maybe there’s an unavoidable tradeoff between preparedness and pre-event hazard mitigation. We can always build more resilience into our critical infrastructure. But we can never build in so much that disasters are precluded. All we can do is change the tradeoff between more frequent disasters of small scale and fewer disasters of far greater individual impact. And without practice – without the experience of disaster from time to time, is preparedness achievable? Or is preparedness without practice an oxymoron? The Department of Homeland Security and other groups practice frequent tabletop exercises. These put emergency managers and those with whom they coordinate through their paces. But the degree of realism is limited. And such exercises usually involve at most a handful of the population at large. [One exception? The Great Southern California Shakeout of 2008 and subsequent years which involved some 5 million people in some way.]
By contrast, in actual disasters, the general public become the real actors and players of the piece. No one gets to opt-out of the drill. A simple example. In the DC area, hundreds of traffic signals were knocked out in the early going. If you were on the road at frequent intervals over the past weekend, as I was, you could see visible improvements in driver performance and cooperation at these intersections over time. Everyone learned! In the same way, we all started developing and implementing a wide range of coping strategies for dealing with heat stress. Drinking lots of fluids. Finding an open shopping mall. Going to the movies…Few people got a free pass…and those got a lesson in how to reach out to less-fortunate friends and neighbors.
But suppose we’d upgraded DC’s vital systems to the point where DC residents had no inkling other than a few moments of high winds and flying tree branches that a derecho had come through. Suppose the next morning nothing had been affected. Would any learning have occurred? Or, recasting the question, suppose we’d not had the two horrific weeks of Snowmageddon two winters back? Would we have been a bit less prepared for this event? Or suppose a cyberattack were to shut down all of our city’s ATM’s at some point months from now. Might not this weekend’s milder, briefer experience prove to have inoculated us in some way against the larger challenge?
A social scientist and friend – we’ve served on workgroups together – once made this point eloquently to one such workgroup. He said that when we’re attempting to build community resilience, we typically ignore the poor and disenfranchised, and the organizations who serve them. Instead, he said, we should do the exact opposite. They have much to teach the rest of us about resilience. For them, every day is a disaster… a challenge to provide food, shelter and other basic necessities for themselves and their families in the midst of horrific obstacles. They can share their knowledge with us. And, out of the generosity that comes from living in such straitened circumstances, they’re eager to do so.
So, as we swelter in the heat (my home’s power has yet to be restored), as we struggle to acquire services that we’d come to take for granted, let’s not gnash our teeth in frustration. Let’s view these days as welcome opportunities for practice…practice not just in the mechanics of getting through a difficult patch, but also practice in the humanity that allows us to cope with the most dire circumstances.
Tempestas paratus, amicis!
 Be weather-ready, my friends