(Survival Manual/1. Disaster/Long term power outage)
(The power’s out! At minimum, the regional grid is down.
Now what? What chain of events could happen?
Engineers used to talk about guarding against the “single point of failure” when designing critical systems like aircraft control systems or nuclear power plants. But rarely does a single mistake or event result in a catastrophe. As we’ve seen from the March 2011 Japanese earthquake-tsunami-nuclear power plant events, disaster is usually a function of multiple mistakes and a string of bad luck, often called an ‘event cascade ’.
Many of the scenarios discussed in the DISASTER section of Survival Manual could result in a power outage of indeterminate length. In a disaster situation, watch for an event cascade to rapidly envelope regions–the effects would be initially seen in food and/or water shortages, there will be broad public
fear, regions of inhospitable climatic exposure, hardship and disease might follow in the mid-term.
The following paragraphs describe the impact of a major long-term electrical power outage:
A. Main Street Infrastructure
_ Water: Individuals can only survive for three or four days without access to clean drinking water.
- Without electricity to power the city water pumps and water purification plants, many individuals may lose access to clean drinking water. Lack of clean drinking water may become a critical issue during an extended power blackout lasting weeks and months.
- Some large cities use lakes and reservoirs to hold drinking water supplies at elevated heights. These systems will be fairly resistant to extended power outages. (In New York City, approximately 95% of the total water supply is delivered to the consumer by gravity. Only about 5% of the water is regularly pumped to maintain the desired pressure.)
- Cities that use large water pumps, water treatment plants, elevated water tanks or reservoirs located below the city’s elevation may be vulnerable to extended power outages. During an electrical blackout, the pump stations that pull, move and elevate water and the water treatment plants that filter and purify the water may become inoperative due to loss of electricity. But some water plants have standby engine-generators installed to provide emergency power.
- Many rural homes use well water or spring water. They may be severely affected unless they have portable electrical generators to power their well pumps.
- The Northeast Blackout of 14 August 2003 (not triggered by a solar storm) affected 50 million people in Northeastern and Midwestern United States and Ontario, Canada. Many areas lost water pressure causing potential contamination of city water supplies. Cleveland, Ohio and Detroit, Michigan issued boil water orders affecting approximately 8 million people during this crisis.
_ Sewage: City waste treatment facilities depend upon electricity for operations.
- If waste treatment facilities become inoperative due to a loss of electricity, then the untreated waste stream can either flow into rivers, streams or lakes or back up into homes and businesses. If raw sewage is allowed to overflow, it can contaminate important potential drinking water supplies.
- Newer communities have mandated installation of check valves in sewer lines to prevent sewage from backing up into homes. But in older communities before these standards were adopted, the waste can back up into homes turning basements into cesspool.
- Some waste treatment plants may overcome the loss of electricity and stay in operation during an extended power outage. For example, the waste treatment plant serving Akron, Ohio in the 1960’s was designed to capture and store the methane released as a byproduct of the treatment process. This methane was then used to fuel electrical power generators that powered the treatment plant and large furnaces that were used to burn the solid waste during the final phase of waste processing.
The methane capture process provided approximately 60% of the plants fuel needs. These systems are more robust and may provide continuous operations during this type of crisis. Other waste treatment plants may have standby engine-generators installed to provide emergency power.
- Without water, human waste cannot be flushed down the toilet. The stench from unflushed toilets may become overpowering and force people from their homes.
- In rural communities, many individuals have septic tank systems. These are natural self-contained waste treatment systems that require no electricity for operation. These units should operate normally during a power blackout provided individuals haul water and manually flush toilets using buckets of water.
- During the Northeast Blackout of 14 August 2003, Cleveland, Ohio; Kingston, Ontario and New York experienced major sewage spills into waterways.
_ Refrigeration: Without electricity most freezers and refrigerators will no longer operate. Food in freezers will begin to thaw out after a day or two and this food will quickly spoil. For an average family, this can be a fairly significant monetary loss.
_ Lighting: Rooms without natural lighting (windows and skylights) will be dark during the day. At night the entire house will be as dark as a cave. This will limit functionality of several rooms within the home.
_ Heating: Most furnaces (electric, gas and fuel oil) will be inoperative during an electrical power outage. Gas and fuel oil furnaces will not work because electronic ignition systems, thermostats and blower motors all require electricity for operations. In the winter, the lack of heat can make it difficult to stay warm and to keep sufficient heat within the house to prevent water pipes from freezing.
_ Cooling: Most air conditioners require electrical power to operate. In the hot humid summer, the lack of air conditioning and fans can make it difficult to stay cool and to exhaust the humidity from the house.
_ Cooking: Most ranges and ovens will be inoperative during an electrical power outage. This includes many gas ranges. Most new gas ranges currently available employ one of 3 basic gas ignition systems; pilot ignition, hot surface ignition system, or a spark ignition system. All three systems require electricity for operations. Without ranges and ovens, cooking meals and boiling water due to boil water orders and advisories will be difficult.
- Automobiles, buses and trucking will be significantly affected by an extended electrical power outage. Stop lights will stop functioning. At major intersections the loss of stop lights will lead to major gridlock. Lack of street lights will produce darkened roadways and intersections.
Gasoline pumps in service stations are driven by electricity.
- Without electrical power, gasoline and diesel fuel will not be available to motorist and truckers. Generally the majority of service stations do not have emergency generators.
- Airlines can be significantly affected by an extended major electrical power outage compounded by other solar storm effects. Without their navigational radars, no flights could land or takeoff until electrical power is restored. A blackout will disrupt the airline ticketing system. It can
affect crash alarm/sirens and rescue and firefighting emergency response. Lack of electrical power can also affect Navaid, visual aids, runway lighting, ARFF station door operation, TSA screening equipment, lighting, baggage loading, loading bridge operation, airport air-conditioning, and refueling operations. A powerful solar storm can also jam air control radio frequencies between the aircraft and ground control. Most airports are equipped with large emergency generator systems that can provide functionality to some of their most critical systems.
- Railway train and subway systems can be affected by inducted current from the solar storm. The tracks are long metal conductors that can pick up large inducted currents. The inducted currents can bleed over into control systems and signaling systems damaging equipment. In the past, induced currents were sufficient to turn the railroad signals red and to ignite fires in railroad control stations. Metro and subway systems are driven directly from electrical power. They will become inoperative during an electrical blackout stranding passengers.
- Traffic signals and public transit are only part of the transportation facilities that depend on electricity. Other systems include tunnel lights and ventilation; intelligent transportation systems (ITS) equipment such as cameras, loop detectors, variable message signs, and electronic toll collection equipment; and pumps to control flooding in depressed roadways.
A major electrical blackout will produce a loss of access to funds. Credit card processing, bank transactions, ATM withdrawals, check validation, payroll disbursement and even cash registers are dependent on the availability of electrical power. This problem can be compounded by the loss of key
satellites that form part of the conduit for transmitting financial data.
4. Commerce and Industry
Commerce and industry will be plagued by the same problems impacting homes during a major electrical power blackout including potential interruption of water, sewage, lighting, heating and air conditioning. Add to this list other problems associated with electrical outages such as banking, computers and networks, transportation, shipping and receiving, payroll, and employee absenteeism.
- I (article author) experienced the great San Fernando Valley earthquake of 9 February 1971 first hand. The earthquake knocked out power in several areas. At one major intersection, it took over an hour to travel through it because the stoplight was dead. At the time, thousand of stop lights were dead and the police were spread very thin. The only way the logjam was cleared from that intersection was when private individuals went out into the street and began directing traffic. Many emergency vehicles were tied up in these traffic jams unable to respond to true emergencies.
- Beginning in the 1960s, engineers and architects began sealing off building from the outdoors, constructing mechanical environments solely controlled by electric power. An electrical blackout will affect many modern buildings due to poor natural ventilation and lighting. Our commerce today is also very reliance on computers and telecommunications. Loss of this infrastructure will take a heavy toll.
5. Other Impacts
- At the onset of an electrical blackout, people will be trapped in elevators, in underground mines, on roller coasters (some dangling from rides in midair), and inside commuter trains. (Some of these commuters will need to be evacuated from trains stopped in tunnels and between stations.
It can take more than 2 hours for transit workers and emergency personnel to
reach some of these trains. Those stranded in tunnels may be in pitch blackness
and very frightened.)
- At the onset of an electrical blackout, most individuals will want to return home before nightfall. In general, commuter trains and subways will be down. Automobile traffic in cities will be gridlocked due to inoperative traffic lights. Ferries, buses and taxis will continue to run but expect erratic service, very long lines, crowds and chaos. In large cities, many commuters will simply walk home with some traveling over 160 city blocks.
- In some large cities at the onset of the blackout, tunnel managers will make several key decisions. One decision is to close down some traffic lanes within tunnels. Generally, facilities’ ventilation systems require an excessive amount of electrical power and as a result many are not
connected to electrical backup system. Therefore, tunnel operators will have to reduce the number of cars allowed through at any given time in order to minimize the carbon monoxide threat. Some bridge and tunnel operators will reverse one lane of traffic. This will create three lanes for traffic leaving the downtown area and one lane for vehicles returning downtown.
- Most individuals will be keenly interested in the extent of the outage, the cause of the outage (natural or terrorist) and a prognosis of when power will be restored. At the onset of the blackout, almost all of the FM radio stations will be initially knocked off the air. Many of these stations will return over the next hour as emergency backup generators kick in. Portable radios and car radios are key in communicating an early assessment of the blackout.
- Laptop computers with dial-up connections will generally continue to operate in an electrical blackout at least until their computer batteries drain down. Amateur radio will play a critical role in transmitting emergency communications.
- At the onset of the blackout, many home improvement stores (e.g. Home-Depot and Lowe’s) will continue to remain open because they have some flexibility in powering limited store operations using portable emergency generators. These stores can provide much-needed supplies such as flashlights, batteries, portable power generators, etc. Some restaurants will
remain open because gas-powered brick ovens, gas ranges and fryers will not be affected by the outage.
- At clogged intersections, private individuals will step forward and direct traffic in order to relieve traffic congestion. In some cases, passing police officers will distribute fluorescent jackets to these noble individuals. Drivers and pedestrians will generally follow the instructions from them even though they are not traffic police officers.
- Even if cell phone service is not physically disrupted, the heavy increase in traffic can quickly overload circuits. Text messaging appears to continue to work on overloaded cell phone networks during the onset of a power outage. In many cases, mobile cell phone towers only have emergency backup power for a few hours. Cell phones will also die as their batteries
- Landline telephones run off of the small DC current that the phone company sends through the lines. But modern phones have so many gadgets that most need a separate AC adapter to run them. Unfortunately many modern phones are so poorly designed that they cannot operate at all when there is no AC current. For example, most household portable phones are useless without power to their base set.
- Tall buildings will be particularly vulnerable to the effects of an electrical blackout. Elevators will not work. The lack of natural lighting in hallways and stairwells will make them pitch black. Even stairwells equipped with emergency lighting will go dark after about an hour as the batteries drain down. Climbing stairs in the dark can be very risky and dangerous. The water tank on the roof will quickly empty and not be refilled because the buildings water pumps will shut down. As a result, individuals will be unable to flush toilets. The air conditioner will be inoperative. Climbing long flights of stairs will be strenuous and hauling supplies of food and water back to rooms or apartments will be hard work. The buildings will be more susceptible to fire hazards because automatic fire suppression sprinklers will no longer have available water.
- An electrical blackout will produce many displaced individuals. Individuals will be stranded in airports, train and subway systems (relatives may drive into clogged cities in an attempt to pick up their loved ones). Many stranded travelers will be forced to sleep in hotel lobbies, airport terminals or out in the streets in parks or at the steps of public buildings turning them into bivouac areas.
- Elderly community members and those requiring electrical medical equipment (life support systems) are more severely impacted by a power blackout than the younger population. Hospitals will have limited emergency power, often not providing air conditioning.
- Electronic security may lock up due to loss of electricity. This can affect electronic gates in parking garages, card keyed doors, turnpike and toll bridge gates and for most individuals their garage door openers. These devices will need to be manually operated.
- As the days pass, many workers will find it difficult to go to work because power will be out in their homes, gasoline stations will be closed, and schools and child care centers will be shut.
B. Oil and Gas Pipelines
Geomagnetic induced currents affect oil and gas pipelines. In pipelines, GIC and the associated pipe-to-soil voltages can increase the rate of corrosion in pipelines especially in high latitude regions. Damage resulting from corrosion is cumulative in nature and can eventually lead to pipeline integrity failures and major fuel leaks. As an example, GICs reaching 57 amps were measured in a Finnish natural gas pipeline in November 1998. Solar storms may have had a hand in the gas pipeline rupture and explosion on 4 June 1989 that demolished part of the Trans-Siberian Railway, engulfing two passenger trains in flames and killing 500 people, many of these were school children heading off on a vacation in the Urals.
The induce currents can also affect the flowmeters that transmit the flow rate of oil/gas in the pipeline producing false readings.
Pipelines that incorporate insulating flanges can be more vulnerable to damaging GIC currents. The flanges are meant to interrupt current flow; however, it was discovered that the flanges create an additional site where the electric potential can build up and force the current flow to ground. As a result these flanges lead to increased risk for corrosion. The length of the pipeline also adds to its vulnerability due to the increased potential for corrosion.
C. Long Distant Communication Line
Geomagnetic storms can induce current on long conductive wires used as communication cables. These cables include telegraph lines, telephone land lines and undersea cables. The induced current can damage transmission lines and produce large electrical arcs and thermal heating in equipment tied to those lines. In the past, this induced current has resulted in damaged equipment, equipment fires and individuals receiving severe electrical shock.
In the geomagnetic storm of March 25, 1940, telephone landlines designed for 48 volts were subjected to 600 volt surges and many transmission lines were destroyed. The undersea Atlantic cable between Newfoundland and Scotland saw voltages up to 2,600 volts.[The New York Times & The Washington Post]
New forms of cables (e.g. coaxial cables, fiber optic cables) have replaced many earlier forms of communication cables. This has allowed the bandwidth of communication systems to increase but many long cables now require repeater amplifiers along their length. These amplifiers compensate for the loss of signal strength over distance and are connected in series with the center conductor of the cable. Amplifiers are powered by a direct current supplied from terminal stations at either ends of the cable. The varying magnetic field that occurs during a geomagnetic storm induces a voltage into the center of the coaxial cable increasing or decreasing the voltage coming from the cable power supply. The induced voltage experienced during a geomagnetic storm can produce an overload of electricity on the cable system, and in turn, cause power supply failure knocking the repeaters off-line. For example, the solar storm that occurred on 2 August 1972 produced a voltage surge of 60 volts on AT&T’s coaxial telephone cables between Chicago and Nebraska.
Submarine cables now use fiber optic cables to carry communication signals; however, there is still a long metallic conductor along the length of the cable that carries power to the repeaters and as a result is susceptible to induced currents.
Geomagnetic storm induced electrical currents in long wires have caused damage to transmission lines, caused electrical arcing on telegraph equipment, caused thermal heating that resulted in electrical equipment fires, caused several telegraph operators to receive a very severe electrical shock, caused
switchboards in telegraph offices to be set on fire and sending keys to melt, caused telegraph bells to automatically go off, caused very strange sounds on telephones like several sirens slowly increasing in pitch until it produced a loud screech, and caused incandescent resistance lamps” in telegraph circuits to light.
See also the 4dtraveler posts:
Survival manual/1. Disasters/War, EMP
Survival manual/1. Disasters/EMP–Solar Flare
Survival manual/3. Food and Water/Develop A Survival Food List
 Beginning on 11 March 2011 with a massive 9.0 earthquake as the triggering event and spreading outward in the weeks that followed: There occurred the strongest earthquake NE Japan experienced in 1200 years, followed by a massive tsunami that washed inland along the coast destroying cities and completely washing away villages; a nuclear power plant was knocked off line and partially destroyed, cutting electric power to the region; radioactive outgassing forced evacuation; many thousands of dead corpses were intermingled amongst the tsunami debris piles; survivors in northern parts of island cleaned out supermarket shelves, while road damage limited shelf restocking; water service for many areas was damaged by the earthquake while the widespread power outages cut service to others; rolling ‘brown outs’ spread across the nation as power companies tried to ration electric use; multiple international corporations in the affected region closed for weeks threatening future supply bottlenecks; many thousands of foreign workers and students returned to their countries; snow fell on the region- while a million people were without electric power; a volcano in the southern part of the country became active; Japanese investors began selling equities, bonds and other investments in order to raise cash, thus depressing prices and reducing demand; the Japanese reduced purchases of US Treasury bonds, causing US treasury to incestuously sell more bonds to our own Federal Reserve.