In recent years, we’ve witnessed the massive destruction of property and loss of life due to earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes. Each time one of these events occurs, we’re all reminded of just how dependent we’ve become on communications and electrical systems. If I were a Doomsday Prepper, I’d tell all of you who live near the coastline to pack your bags and head for higher ground. I’d urge anyone living close to a fault line or in Tornado Alley to move to more stable lands. I’d also tell you to stockpile canned food and water and to start making plans to go off-grid. However, I’m not one to fall into this line of thinking. My personality and technical training lead me down a more methodical and practical path of analysis and action.
Rather than tackle all of the weather-related damage on the U.S. power grid and electrical power distribution systems at one time, it seemed like the right time for us to narrow our focus on the densely populated Northeast, taking a closer look at how power outages from Hurricane Sandy late last year affected millions of people. More specifically, I thought it was important for us to focus on how floodwaters engulfed electrical equipment and prevented certain normal/on-site emergency power systems from performing as designed.
The thing is designing emergency power systems in flood-prone areas isn’t a new concept. As an industry, we have decades of experience in this area. So the simple question being asked is why did some key emergency power systems in the New York/New Jersey metropolis fail to perform during this crucial time?
Some professionals in our industry are beginning to wonder if the fundamental assumptions used to design and install back-up power systems are somehow flawed. Although I believe current rules and regulations are pretty sound, designing for natural disasters is where things can get tricky — especially when these so-called “once-in-a-lifetime” storms start hitting more frequently. The other obstacle to overcome is how to handle legacy equipment/systems and space restrictions in such densely populated areas.
The good news is that a call to action has already taken place in New York. On Nov. 15, 2012, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo announced the formation of three commissions, which will be charged with undertaking a comprehensive review and making specific recommendations to overhaul and improve New York State’s emergency preparedness and response capabilities as well as examining how to improve the strength and resilience of the state’s infrastructure to better withstand major weather incidents. A special Building Resiliency Task Force of leaders in the New York City real estate community will study and analyze how to better prepare the city’s buildings for future extreme weather events and infrastructure failures. The Task Force will consider both direct effects of extreme weather on buildings, such as flooding or wind damage, as well as secondary effects on buildings caused by infrastructure outages like loss of electricity and water. Working groups and committees have also been formed around building types, including residential, commercial, and critical buildings. Based on interviews for this month’s articles, we also learned that other groups like NFPA and IEEE have started gathering data and making plans to draft papers and revise guidelines and standards as deemed appropriate.
I believe the people who have lived through these natural disasters and work on the front lines to bring normal and emergency power systems back online are the best resources we have when it comes to enacting change. Therefore, with their help, I’m confident that out of all of this destruction a better set of design guidelines and operational procedures will ultimately emerge. When they do, I’ll be sure and share them with you.