Hurricane Sandy and Our Energy Infrastructure
By David Sandalow
Under Secretary of Energy (Acting) and Assistant Secretary
for Policy & International Affairs
Department of Energy
On the night of October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy slammed into the East Coast of the US. The storm first made landfall just south of Atlantic City, NJ, with 80-mph (130-km/h) winds, torrential rains and record storm surges. In Manhattan’s Battery Park, the ocean rose 9' (2.7 m) higher than a typical high tide and 3' (0.9 m) higher than the previous record. Sandy’s 1100-mile (1770-km) diameter made it the largest Atlantic hurricane on record.
The results were devastating. Tragically, more than 100 lives were lost in the storm.
Aside from the loss of life, Sandy’s impact on energy infrastructure was especially devastating. High winds took down power lines. Rising seas flooded electric substations. Within 24 hours of Sandy’s landfall, more than 8 million utility customers lost power. Fuel distribution networks were paralyzed. Critical terminals for petroleum and petroleum products were badly damaged. Many service stations lost power and couldn’t pump gas, leading to long gasoline lines in the New York/New Jersey area.
While many of the energy-related issues are behind us, the response to this tragedy is ongoing. It is never too soon to take stock, and begin to think about some initial lessons we’ve learned from Sandy.
First, an obvious point: modern society depends on energy services. We all know this but it may be worth highlighting. Without electricity, homes and businesses are dark. Beyond that, elevators stop, many grocers can’t sell food, traffic lights don’t work, hospitals can’t treat patients, refineries can’t operate, pipelines can’t move product and service stations can’t sell gasoline. And without a steady supply of petroleum, today’s transportation system cannot function.
A second lesson from Sandy—citizens with cell phones can be powerful sources of information in a disaster. That depends on cell networks being operational and phone owners being able to charge their phones—problems that plagued many in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. But smart phones and social media tools have the capacity to improve situational awareness in a disaster and dramatically improve response planning. Today there are over 330 million mobile subscribers in the US—more than one device per person on average. The best-selling camera in the world is the Nokia cell phone. Combined with social media like Twitter, Facebook and Gas Buddy, mobile devices empower citizens to quickly and accurately report problems. They can also help keep those affected by a disaster informed. Governments, utilities and others can do more to capture the potential of mobile devices to speed response and recovery.
A third lesson—in flood zones, critical electrical equipment such as breaker boxes and building connections should not be in basements or on ground floors. This point may seem obvious, but this basic vulnerability is found in thousands of buildings in low-lying areas. Building codes in general do not address this. In the days and weeks following Hurricane Sandy, water damage to critical electric equipment dramatically slowed electric restoration in many locations.
Fourth, with regards to fuel distribution, the Northeast might look to the Gulf Coast for some lessons. After Hurricane Katrina, refineries and other pieces of fuel infrastructure were hardened. Some power lines were put underground; backup generators were positioned; in some places, fuel infrastructure was elevated or barriers erected. Several years later, when Hurricane Ike approached, fuel storage tanks and pumping trucks were prepositioned in key locations and priority was given to restoring power to fuel infrastructure, among other steps. More analysis will be needed to determine exactly what infrastructure hardening is most effective in the Northeast, but this is work we should do quickly.
Finally, Hurricane Sandy was yet another reminder that disaster response is a complex undertaking that requires sustained partnerships engaging federal, state, and local agencies, the private sector and civil society, academia, and even community clubs and religious groups. Our work together must begin long before disaster strikes. There is always room for improvement, and Sandy has illustrated ways our energy systems are still vulnerable to disruption.
This article is derived from remarks delivered by Acting Under Secretary of Energy David Sandalow at Columbia University’s Energy Symposium on November 30, 2012. SME is grateful to the US DOE for making this content available.