Climate Resiliency — When a Disaster Becomes a Cascade

October 6, 2021

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Winter storm conditions on Texas Loop 306 in San Angelo, on Feb. 14, 2021. A series of three winter storms caused unusual demands for heating, overloading some parts of the state's electric grid. Photo: Jonathan Cutrer, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

Backgrounder: Climate Resiliency — When a Disaster Becomes a Cascade

By Joseph A. Davis

Disasters just aren’t what they used to be. They’re worse.

Journalists today don’t only cover hurricanes or wildfires — they often cover a catastrophic cascade of infrastructure failures that follow from some unthinkable disaster.

Think Hurricane Katrina, which was once unthinkable. It wasn’t just the hurricane. When the levees failed from the storm surge and New Orleans flooded, the electric motors that ran the drainage pumps were underwater. Hospitals lost emergency power and had to evacuate. Sewage and drinking water plants regionwide went out. Gas and electric power were gone for many. Law and order broke down.

It’s time journalists started thinking in terms of cascading, compound or complex disasters. The terminology is not important, but the insight is.

Sometimes a natural disaster like a storm or wildfire causes failures in a series of infrastructure systems — where one system failure causes or precedes another. And another. Like falling dominoes.

These disasters aren’t just “natural.” They are caused also by human action or inaction — which in some cases is the failure to see how each system can affect the others. And failure to design resilience into the systems.

 

Missing the bigger story

Not everyone is surprised. First responders and emergency managers expect such problems, although too often they fail to persuade communities to address their concerns. But when news media lurch and reel from each catastrophe to the next, they often miss the bigger story.

Often, today, that story is climate change. Climate change seems to raise the odds that more than one infrastructure system will fail in an event. If so, it is because climate change challenges (or threatens) more than one system at a time. It is also because climate change was barely imagined when some of our infrastructure systems were engineered.

 

Modern life, at least in developed,

urbanized areas, depends on multiple

interlocking infrastructure systems.

 

Modern life, at least in developed, urbanized areas, depends on multiple interlocking infrastructure systems. That means electric power generators and distribution lines. That means drinking water and sewage treatment systems and the pipe networks they rely on. That means natural gas pipes underground and the pumps that pressurize them.

It also means roads and bridges, canals and locks, harbors and terminals, fiber and cable networks, phone lines and wireless networks, subways and transit, dams and reservoirs, and buildings of all sizes. And it means banks, offices, libraries, schools and courthouses.

These systems are interdependent in many ways. When the power goes out, the pumps that provide water pressure may go out, too. Without power, cell phone towers may go out. Without gas or electricity, people can’t heat their houses.

 

Case in point: Texas freeze

In February 2021 Texas experienced historically cold weather — actually a series of three winter storms, caused by southward dips in the polar vortex, a manifestation of climate change. This caused unusual demands for heating, overloading some parts of the electric grid.

Texas is different from most states — in that its grid (known as ERCOT) has been purposely isolated from other grids in the nationwide system in an attempt to avoid regulation. This makes it difficult for Texas to draw on power from other regions during times of shortfall.

The result was that February was a series of electrical blackouts. They were supposed to be “rolling” blackouts to relieve overload, but they went on for many days in a lot of places.

The Texas electrical grid runs off of a variety of energy sources: There are natural gas-fueled generating stations, but also wind turbines, coal plants and nuclear plants.

Texas politicians were quick to blame wind turbines for the outage, but that was inaccurate. Freezing equipment at natural gas plants (and the pipes and pumps feeding them) was a major part of the problem. Texas had been warned to winterize them after a 2011 blizzard caused similar problems.

 

The lack of electricity after the Texas

storms led to a cascade of problems.

People froze in their houses. Water

service failed. Stores ran out of staples.

 

In any case, the lack of electricity led to a cascade of problems.

People froze in their houses — or died from carbon monoxide poisoning as they ran generators. Water service failed for millions as pipes in unheated houses froze and burst. This led to even wider water system failures and boil water notices. Stores ran out of staple items like bread and milk — or closed altogether from lack of power. Frozen pipes made it hard for firefighters to fight house fires.

The political recriminations have gone on ever since, although Texas has not yet really hardened its infrastructure for resiliency against future freezes.

 

Case in point: Hurricane Katrina

The 2005 impact of Hurricane Katrina on the city of New Orleans is another example of a compound disaster.

Because Gulf waters were heated by climate change, the storm intensified as it bore down on New Orleans. But the wind wasn’t the biggest catastrophe; it dropped below Category 5 strength as it hit the city.

The real damage started with water. Much of New Orleans is below sea level, and was meant to be protected by levees. Over the years, these levees had not been engineered and maintained well enough to protect the city — partly because of dysfunctional politics.

The Katrina storm surge, along with spotty levee failures, caused much of the city to flood with water like a bathtub hours after landfall.

The city had been warned. Three years earlier The Times-Picayune had published a five-part series (“Washing Away”) detailing what could happen if a big hurricane hit the city head-on. That sparked enough evacuation planning to save thousands of lives.

But many of the city’s poorest and most vulnerable had been unable to evacuate. Ultimately, it was estimated the disaster cost over 1,800 deaths and $125 billion in damage.

 

Equally memorable after Hurricane

Katrina is that for some period almost

all the infrastructure and government

in New Orleans were disabled.

 

The stories of people trapped in homes by rising floodwaters and the human misery at the Superdome (which served as a shelter of last resort) are indelible. But equally memorable is that for some period almost all the infrastructure and government in the area were disabled.

Water and sewer systems were damaged or destroyed by the flooding. Electrical lines and phone lines were wiped out in many places. Local police were unable to cope (leading to Coast Guard and National Guard being brought in for rescue and restoration of order).

Not only were homes and businesses destroyed, but as the city became uninhabitable, hundreds of thousands of people left the area. Some permanently. They were as much “climate refugees” as the Dust Bowl migrants of the 1930s.

But even after tens of billions have been spent to improve the levees and restore the destruction, the city remains vulnerable. The damage from 2021’s Hurricane Ida showed that the area’s electric utility, Entergy, had not prepared adequately for the next big one.

 

Case in Point: Fukushima nuclear meltdown

It started with an earthquake. In 2011, a very large undersea earthquake, one of the most powerful ever recorded, occurred off the coast of Japan.

Rubble outside one unit of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in 2012, more than a year after an earthquake prompted a tsunami that cut cooling capacity, leading to a meltdown and radiation release. Photo: Gill Tudor/IAEA, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

But the quake damage was limited compared to the tsunami that followed. A series of tidal waves, some estimated over 133 feet high, surged onto the shoreline of the nation’s many fishing communities. The death toll from the tsunami was above 19,700.

Japan, lacking fossil fuels, was dependent on nuclear power. One nuclear facility, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, has six separate reactors, making it one of the largest power plants in the world. It’s also located right on the coast (nuclear plants are often sited near water, which helps cool them).

The 2011 tsunami wave at Fukushima was estimated to be at least 46 feet high. The tsunami overwhelmed the plant’s seawall, flooding four of the plant’s buildings and destroying three of them.

Although reactors had shut down when the quake was sensed, they still needed cooling. The quake had knocked out normal utility power. But the tsunami had disabled the plant’s backup diesel generators.

Without cooling, three of the reactor units melted down, resulting in a large radiation release. That prompted authorities to evacuate the population for miles around the plant, an evacuation that remains in effect today, leaving empty houses and ghost towns. Yet earlier studies warning of this possible chain of events had been ignored.

In the meantime, only limited cleanup has been achieved at the damaged and contaminated reactors. Water used to cool them, now contaminated with radiation, has accumulated in tanks at the site. Plans to release it into the ocean have drawn concern and protests from the fishing industry.

Since the Fukushima disaster, the attitudes of people and governments worldwide have shifted significantly toward abandoning nuclear power. Germany, for one, decided to phase out all nuclear power. Meanwhile, most of Japan’s reactors were shut down for safety checks, and not all of them have been restarted.

 

Steps toward resilience

Not all cascading or compound disasters are predictable, much less preventable. But people, businesses and governments can still do much to prepare, prevent or limit their impact. The first step is imagining them. Journalists can help.

Planners (and the journalists who cover them) should use their analysis to reveal the way in which infrastructures and systems are interlocked and interdependent.

If the water won’t flow without electric pumps, you need backup. That means not just a backup generator, but maybe a plan for when it goes out as well. This is relevant in places like New Orleans, where accumulated stormwater is pumped out by a system of powerful pumps.

Hurricane Ida recently demonstrated that these pumps are still dependent to some extent on the electric grid. Hospitals in recent years have begun learning not to put their backup generators on the ground level — where they are vulnerable to floods.

The electric grid (and its ability to shuttle power from areas of surplus to areas of need) is one source of resiliency. So are microgrids, which can be independent of the larger grid system.

What was unimaginable a few decades ago is sometimes a headline horror story today.

Yes, California has always had fires. But they have been worse in recent years. That’s a result of a lot of things. Years of fuel accumulation from policies favoring fast suppression, sure. Lack of land use policies that keep people from building vulnerable structures in fire zones, definitely. But years of megadrought, diminished water supply, record heat and dangerous winds are also in the equation.

Disaster planning needs to account for climate change today, more than ever. So denial of climate threats can be a force-multiplier for worse disasters.

Wildfires, hurricanes and flooding still put people in evacuation shelters. But today, with the COVID-19 pandemic, there are still major hazards from crowding too many people into too small a space, hence a need for protective protocols. Getting vaccinated helps, but opposition to vaccination can make things worse.

Journalists should always remember that disasters can be compounded by lack of information or disinformation. Communication of accurate information is still an important part of handling disasters, and the news media have a role in that.

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.


* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 35. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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