When Superstorm Sandy took down the power in the Northeast, the scene looked all too familiar to Keith Stammer. As director of Joplin/Jasper County (Mo.) Emergency Management, he had seen the lights go out in the wake of a tornado that tore a swath through the town a mile wide and six miles long in May 2011. Hospitals lost power, as did the city’s water supplier.
“In the short term, people generally had enough food, clothing, batteries, medicine and such for anywhere from 72 to 96 hours. That’s generally the time it takes for the cavalry to show up,” he said. “Once you get beyond that point, it seems this will turn into a long-term situation, which makes it much more difficult.”
Joplin struggled for weeks to recover, just as parts of New York and New Jersey lived in the dark for weeks following Hurricane Sandy. But what if those weeks had stretched to a month or more, reaching beyond one town or state to encompass a whole region?
Such a catastrophic power outage lies not in the realm of science fiction. It’s a real possibility, and one that poses significant challenges to the emergency management community.
Catastrophic power loss doesn’t get a lot of play in the media or the first responder community. There may be a degree of a head-in-the-sand response, but more likely it’s because basic concepts are difficult to grasp.
“You can’t hold a kilowatt hour in your hand. It’s this abstract thing about motion and heat, things that can be very hard to understand,” said Benjamin Sovacool, senior researcher for energy security and justice at the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School. But the threat is no less real. “I am surprised it hasn’t already happened.”
Why the likelihood? The entire nation runs on just three power grids. “So this will be not just a power outage in the city or in the Northeast — this will affect six to 10 states,” said Garry Briese, local program integrator for the Wide Area Recovery and Resiliency Program for the Denver UASI.
Briese has been a nationwide advocate for preparedness in the face of a potential disaster that many would rather not face. And it will be a disaster, he insists. “Everything in our society revolves around the availability of electric power,” he said. “We will go from 2012 to 1850.”
The U.S. energy grid comprises some 160,000 miles of high-voltage lines, 5 million miles of distribution lines, thousands of generators and transformers, and tens of thousands of other pieces of equipment, The Wall Street Journal reported, adding: “It is difficult to imagine hardening so massive a structure against random, natural disturbances; it is almost inconceivable that it could be hardened against deliberate and intelligent attacks.”
So there’s widespread agreement that such an outage is possible and even likely. So what happens when the lights go out for a couple of months?
The social implications of a major outage will happen quickly. Supermarkets will be cleaned out in a couple of days. Fresh water will become scarce. Generators will run out of gas, and gas stations will run dry, too, as was seen in Sandy, where New York and New Jersey instituted rationing to control gas lines that ran four hours long.
As law enforcement knows, dark neighborhoods are more vulnerable to crime, especially when a whole city is hungry and scared. As one source suggested, “people tend to move down Maslow’s pyramid pretty fast.”
People find personal firearms a tempting proposition. But this doesn’t help the professionals keep order.
“The social systems begin breaking down within 72 hours,” Briese said. “People’s innate restraint breaks down.”
Shelter will become a priority, especially if weather is a consideration. In that case, people will go stay with family and friends for three to five days, Stammer said. They may find hotels and rental properties to be a temporary housing solution, possibly for a couple of weeks.