Impact of Disasters to Infrastructure Term Paper


Impact of Disasters to Infrastructure in a Networked World

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Disaster planning has been made that much more difficult in recent decades because of the increasingly networked nature of our own societies. As economies and cultures become more interconnected and seemingly disparate systems rely on each other to function, the effects of disasters on critical infrastructures become more significant and widespread. Whether those disasters are technological such as the 2003 Blackout, intentional such as the September 11th terrorist attacks, or natural such as Hurricane Katrina analysts are finding that the impact of these disasters is more extensive than might have once been the case. Key assets and critical infrastructure have been networked in such a pervasive way that seemingly localized disasters will have far-reaching consequences throughout the economy and society. Through an individual analysis of each of the aforementioned disasters, we shall see that the networked nature of our critical infrastructure systems has made disaster planning and preparation that much more difficult.

Speaking to Congress on September 4, 2002, Ken Watson of the Partnership for Critical Infrastructure Security had this to say when asked about any inherent weaknesses in the electrical grid:

The interdependent nature of all critical infrastructures makes it difficult to label any one sector of the economy as a weak link. (Verton 2002: p. 4)

In other words, the Congressional panel was concerned that after the realities of September 11th, the electrical grid might make an appealing target for terrorist groups intent on causing more havoc in the United States. What is interesting to note, though, is Watson’s response. Rather than affirm that the electrical grid significantly weak and open to attack — which it most certainly it — Watson took a different tack and explained that the more significant issue is the fact that all critical infrastructures are intertwined with one another. An attack on the electrical grid would ripple throughout the economy and society, sequentially shutting down other critical infrastructures in the process. But the same would be true for an attack on any critical infrastructures. For instance, an terrorist attack on a major U.S. port, especially one that process large amounts of petroleum, would have effects on infrastructure beyond shipping and transportation. Such a terrorist attack would also affect fuel costs and the availability of much need energy sources, especially in the wake of a disaster.

The September 11th terrorist attacks were especially illustrative of this point. The attacks themselves threw an increasing amount of uncertainty into the debate over how to best protect critical infrastructure (Verton 2002: p. 4). For example, the attacks on the World Trade Center had the immediate effect of killing thousands of people and negatively affecting the U.S. economy. In addition, however, the attack crippled the ability of emergency responders to effectively coordinate their actions; communication infrastructure was overwhelmed by the number of incoming calls for help and was unable to process this amount of information rapidly. Transportation and the movement of people was also negatively affected as millions of people tried to flee the area simultaneously, locking up key points of entry and egress both for those attempting to remove themselves to safety and for emergency personnel who were trying to get closer to the site of the attack. These are just examples, but they highlight an important consideration: as one critical infrastructure is disabled or overwhelmed, the effects began to cascade into other infrastructural systems because of the way that these systems are networked together. Communications is a critical example because it is important to appropriately prepare for a disaster and then respond to it in times of crisis; of course, even the lines of communication are open to direct and indirect attack as was evidenced by September 11th (Verton, 2002: p. 4).

The problem is magnified significantly when the disaster is focused more directly on an underpinning critical infrastructure such as electricity generation and transmission. The interdependent nature of the electrical grid has long made it a concern for disaster planner, and rightly so. In addition to being a critical source of daily and emergency energy, electricity also powers a myriad of other critical systems such as the economy, utilities, and communication just to name a few critical infrastructures (Lorinc 2004: p. 55). Thus, when 50 million people in the Northeast United States, the Midwest, and parts of Canada went without all electricity on August 14, 2003 in the largest blackout in history, the cascading effects to our interconnected infrastructures was significant. More than just prevent people from playing video games or watching television, the loss of the electrical grid over this large swath of a continent affected business, the economy, hospitals, food storage systems, transportation, communication, and more. The economic loss to Ontario alone was estimated at more than $1 billion. And like the September 11th terrorist attack, there were indications that this kind of sweeping disaster was possible, but the impending signs were ignored and as a result the catastrophe had wider effects than necessarily needed to occur (Casazza 2004: p. 44; Lorinc 55).

The most unnerving aspect of the 2003 blackout in North America was that the primary culprit has been traced to a single short circuit in a transmission line in the United States (Lorinc 2004: p. 55). However, because of the interconnected nature of the electrical grid — which in the case could be used as a metaphor for all critical infrastructures — this seemingly small problem cascading throughout the grid and progressively shut down generator after generator because steadily high demand for electricity overwhelmed the grid’s ability to provide an adequate supply. Because electricity is the primary fuel of choice for all of our critical infrastructures, its loss was devastating. This was apparent during the blackout, during September 11th, and as we shall see during Hurricane Katrina.

The vulnerability to the electrical grid lies, though, in its underlying architecture: generation and transmission systems are located close to fuel sources but far from users, and generators are interconnected by long distance lines that are highly dependent on only a few links and nodes to function (Cratty and Fellhoelter 2004: p. 10). The failure of any of these links or nodes means that long distance transmission of electricity can be crippled by disproportionately small events that have major impacts on other critical infrastructures. Without electricity, the majority of our other critical infrastructures are quite literally left in the dark and our collective ability to respond to these failures is impacted significantly and negatively. When the electrical grid went down in August 2003, the effects on critical infrastructures was widespread given how dependent those infrastructures are on a steady supply of electricity in order to operate effectively.

This reality was illustrated quite aptly during the Hurricane Katrina disaster along the Gulf Coast in 2005. New Orleans, in particular, is home to a series of critical infrastructures upon which the city and the entire region depend. In addition to major universities, there are nuclear power plants, petroleum plants and petroleum refineries, chemical plants, seaports, reservoirs, pipelines, and electrical transmission networks (Piazza 2003: p. 55). Katrina became a crisis of integrated proportions because it utterly disabled the regional energy supply. In addition to shutting down electrical systems, Katrina also crippled imports of fossils fuels, refineries that process oil and natural gas, the energy distribution network — including pipelines, electrical transmission lines, trucking, and shipping — and a breakdown in communications (Yergin 2005: p. 3). Collectively, these systems all depend on one another for recovery. Without communications in place, it is difficult or impossible to get workers back to key sites that must be repaired. But if electrical transmission isn’t repaired, communications cannot be put back into place. And even if it were, without fuel to move and transport people and equipment, no repairs can be made at all. Thus, a breakdown of any one of these critical infrastructures will have devastating effects for all of the other infrastructures because each is highly dependent on the other for its operation and repair.

As a consequence, Hurricane Katrina was especially problematic because it indiscriminately disabled all of these systems simultaneously. Unlike the blackout, which affected many infrastructures from one problem in the electrical grid or even 9/11, Katrina dismantled many infrastructures at once. Refineries shut down, which drove up the cost of fuel and made the task of transporting help more difficult. It has also increased the cost of transportation for the entire country. Without cheap diesel, the cost of transportation and business significantly increased. The Port of New Orleans was also the fifth largest bulk cargo port in the U.S., undermining the international transport industry including agricultural exports and fuel imports (Gallagher 2005: pp. 10-11). Collectively a single storm was able to damage many critical infrastructures at the same time causing a fundamental breakdown in the ability of any of them to recover from the disaster. Because each of those infrastructures is so dependent on the others, recovery is also dependent on the healthy operation of all of the infrastructures. This fact has made recovery and preparation for the next disaster all the more difficult.

The critical infrastructures in the world, and in the U.S. In particular, have become increasingly dependent on one another. Disasters that singly affect one critical infrastructure will have cascading negative effects for all of the other interdependent infrastructures. In those cases in which energy infrastructures are damaged from the outset, the impacts on the rest of the network of interdependent systems and infrastructures are especially dramatic. Without access to energy, recovery after any disaster is difficult and since all infrastructures depend on energy inputs in one form or another, the collapse of an energy infrastructure can be especially devastating. Nonetheless, the important lesson to retain from these disasters discussed above is that all of our existing critical infrastructures are increasingly dependent on each other to operate and, as a result, increasingly susceptible to collapse and damage as a result of seemingly unrelated disasters.


Casazza, J. 2004, ‘What caused the blackout?’, Energy, vol. 29, no. 1, pp. 43-45.

Cratty, B. And Fellhoelter, K. 2004, ‘One year later: lessons learned from the August 14th blackout’, Energy User News, vol. 29, no. 8, pp. 10-12.

Gallagher, J. 2005, ‘Struggling in Katrina’s wake’, Traffic World, vol. 269, no. 37, pp. 10-12.

Lorinc, J. 2004, ‘Power hungry: a year after the great summer blackout, the future looks dim’, Toronto Life, vol. 38, no. 8, pp. 55-58.

Piazza, P. 2003, ‘Hard work in the big easy’, Security Management, vol. 47, no. 9, pp. 54-60.

Verton, D. 2003, ‘Protection of critical systems still haphazard’, Computerworld, vol. 37, no. 36, p. 4.

Yergin, D. 2005, ‘The Katrina crisis’, Management Quarterly, vol. 46, no. 3, pp. 2-8.

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