Sandy and digital snow days

by Mary Logan

My thoughts and concern goes out to those struggling with this unprecedented American storm in the northeast. As I write this early on Tuesday morning, watching this game-changer of a storm, a myriad of thoughts go through my head. The storm event is just the beginning. Rivers will flood, and snows will accumulate. Recovery will be long and slow. Recovery will be hampered by problems with energy delivery, complexity, and density of populations. Just in time, digitized systems that are overly complex will be challenged. News will filter out slowly, with initial optimism about the extent of the damage, followed by increasingly pessimistic reports about the size and extent of the problems as communication begins to be reestablished. This post describes Sandy as a catastrophic pulse in relation to the problems of dense urban living, complexity, and digitization.

First, the big picture–power

What are the ramifications at the larger scale? Is this the beginning of the end to high density living in NYC? Most of this is eventually recoverable, if there is enough manpower and enough fuel. I have faith in the American can-do attitude and ability to knuckle down in a crisis. But that can-do attitude must be backed by energy and resources supplied by a complex society. And many of the complex systems that allow dense living depend on a steady supply of energy.

Power and transportation are inextricably linked in dense urban areas. How long will it take to get the arterial subways running again in New York City (NYC)? Is any part of NYC really operable without the high volume subway system to get manpower where it needs to go? How do we get gasoline and diesel to the places that need it for backup generator operation, and what happens if we cannot do so? What will happen to gas supply for cars, and how long will that be disrupted due to power outages to gas stations, flooded refineries, and slowed deliveries of fuel? What does flooding and power supply problems at major airline hubs do to global supply chains? What about demolished high voltage transformers, which are very difficult to replace, requiring months of lead time if they have to be ordered? How will the replacement process be complicated by connected complexities? This is an example of the problem of scale—how many transformers are out over how wide of an area? If the problems are small and local, repair is relatively easy. Larger scale problems at multiple nodes creates interconnected dependencies.

Power is also linked to communication. Landlines are disrupted by downed telephone wires, and cellphones are disrupted by cell tower power failures and inability to keep phones charged. Servers need energy, and networks require participants with operating wifi and power. Problems with communication complicate recovery during and after the chaos of crisis. Because of the interconnected nature of and our dependence on complex digital systems, this will all complicate recovery.

What about the nukes?

Of our energy sources, the most dangerous is nuclear power, since the cooling of reactors and spent fuel pools (even those that are offline) requires a steady supply of electricity, diesel generators, and/or batteries. Will we have a Fukushima-like meltdown at one of the many nuclear plants in the northeast this week due to sustained power outages? Time will tell. Oyster Creek Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) had offloaded part of its fuel last week into a spent fuel pool, and then experienced flooding. Latest reports suggest that the spent fuel pools are not being cooled adequately, and the in-house fire suppression system may have to be used to cool the pools. To quote a wag on, the words fire hose and nuclear plant should not be used in the same sentence.

Indian Point NPP also experienced a shutdown, and other plants had other problems. We still need to wait and see about other NPPs on flooding rivers and the Great Lakes. So we will see what happens there. Loss of cooling accidents (LOCA) can occur in ~100 minutes for nuclear reactors, and ~25 hours for spent fuel pools, depending on a number of variables. US reactor map

Offline and damaged nuclear power plants will lower baseline power in the short-term and perhaps the long-term, too. Loss of consistent baseline power from NPPs reduces consistency of overall utility power, leading to more blackouts. This is how complexity devolves. If there is a meltdown, that is a game-changer. We can recover from most of these problems and keep up density in urban centers with just about any of these problems, if energy continues to flow. But if there is a meltdown at a NPP, we will not be able to maintain business as usual (BAU), as that impacts the environment in a permanent, deadly fashion over the long-term. We must decommission these plants and do something with the spent fuel for longer-term storage if we are to hope for any future existence in the northeast. The sooner we mothball these dangerous NPPs and adapt to a lower energy basis, the safer we will be. Isn’t it just a matter of time until a hurricane, or a tornado, or a widespread power outage causes a meltdown and permanent change in BAU in the US?

But we shouldn’t have to sweat nuclear power. Here is where peoples’ mental models, blindspots, and lack of imagination about their BAU world may begin to change. For example, what happens now to the environmentalists’ cognitive dissonance about the priority danger of climate change when the impact of climate change in the form of a big storm causes a nuclear power plant meltdown, if not now, then most assuredly later? Bill McKibben, are you listening?

Healthcare and Transportation

Hospitals were reportedly challenged during the storm, with reports of nurses in hospitals in NYC having to manually ventilate patients when backup generators failed. At one point, there was talk of carrying 5 gallon cans of diesel fuel up stairways to the 60 gallon/hour primary generator on the top floor, whose lower-level pumps had failed. NYU Medical Center was evacuated. I can only imagine the chaos without lights, elevators, or ventilators. Perhaps hospitals in NYC will not meet the challenge if there is no power. Getting supplies and staff into these hospitals will be a huge challenge. Injuries over a very wide area will go up as sewage systems fail, chainsaw injuries, burns, electrocutions, explosions, and other recovery traumas accumulate. Disabled people and those with other issues will be challenged by problems with failures of complex systems in a myriad of ways.

We’ll just print more money

I have already heard/read a number of comments about the funding of recovery. Can we just print more money for our burgeoning recovery needs? Will printing money bring the needed extra energy and materials to the area to return the area to BAU? That system works only as long as the energy keeps flowing. Since the US imports two-thirds of its energy, that is the bottom line. It’s all about the oil. As long as printing money brings a

Header Reuters Eduardo Munoz

consistent flow of oil and gas to the area, then we can keep BAU running by waving our magic wand, at least to some extent. If printing money stops working as a pump primer, then the energy inputs may slow. What are the ramifications of basic problems like a flooded subways in a trading hub on the complex, digital functions in a global system? Especially when that system is reliant on high frequency trading, complex manipulations, and active manipulation and involvement by Wall Street? That’s the Goldman Sachs New World Headquarters blazing away in the NYC skyline as Sandy hit, powered by generators. At the same time, patients were getting evacuated in NYC down stairways from hospitals with failed generators.

Rebuilding on the beach?

Shouldn’t we be taking a breather here and asking ourselves whether rebuilding anything at sea level in descent is simply crazy? It is time to stop handing out money through federal flood insurance for wealthy people to rebuild second homes on beaches. There will be more of these storms and other unexpected extreme weather in the future due to climate change. It is time to adapt.

And is this the tipping point for the insurance industry, which was already on unstable ground? Will the insurance industry keep adding clauses and keep leaving states, until they write themselves out of the industry? Or will people drop coverage as budgets tighten and insurance becomes less of a priority? Or both?

Pepsi, Coke, or spring water?

Will some states in the northeast have delayed elections? Time will tell. What does chaos and unhappiness in one fifth (or more) of the American population mean for this election when they eventually get to vote? How will the complexities of digitized voting be disrupted? How will the flood of corporate money react to the chaos this week? Like Chris Hedges, I’m registering my protest vote and voting my values for the Green Party, especially since my liberal presidential vote in red-state Alaska does not count.

Will you get to vote next week? When will the power come back on? Do we have bigger worries than water in the basement? Will Superstorm Sandy show the hidden frailties of our system, becoming a tipping point in our understanding about the energy basis for society? Will a NPP melt down now and become a game changer, or will we have to wait until next time a storm like this happens? Is this the evolution of a new normal for the northeast US?

  • MedievalFuture

    This is just a foretaste of what our future holds in store
    for us, though trying to mention it in polite company has roughly the same
    effect as an admission to having leprosy.

    But at least Sandy reminds us that we have created the chaos
    of our environment by burning fuel, now we have no choice but to burn more fuel
    to combat it. The cities battered by hurricane Sandy were built with
    hydrocarbon energy, and we have to burn more of it to prevent them being
    pounded out of existence.

    If you think that concept is too extreme, this time it’s
    going to take up to two weeks to get the power back on. We only have so much
    resource available to fix things, and our energy supplies are in decline;
    whereas Nature’s power is literally unlimited. When we reach the point where we
    no longer have the means to ‘fix things’, whatever nature knocks down will stay

    This is the unwinnable struggle we face, it’s more than
    fixing a few power lines so the lights in Wall Street can come back on.

    As the effort to bring everything back to ‘normal’ gets under
    way, we might be deluding ourselves once again as to the extent of what we are
    taking on here.

    To put things right, we will pump out water, fight fires,
    shift debris, feed people, tend the injured—all necessary stuff, but to do that
    we will have to burn fuel. And this time we will overcome disaster, because we
    have sufficient fuel to fight the forces of chaos. Things will get back to
    normal, and the mating calls of the hoax-merchants will be heard once more
    across the land as the rain stops and the skies clear.

    But we all know the winds will be back.

    And we will have to burn more fuel to resist the forces of
    chaos again.

    And again.

    And again.

    Any bets on the ultimate winner in all this?

    • Thanks, Medieval. That is the point I wanted to make. Shutting down nuclear now rather than later could save the entire northeast, and Sandy is a really good illustration of our quandary.

    • Doug Salzmann

      Medieval wrote: “The cities battered by hurricane Sandy were built withhydrocarbon energy, and we have to burn more of it to prevent them being
      pounded out of existence.”

      Well, yes, and. . . at some point, if we are to maintain anything remotely resembling civilization, we’re going to have to accept that the *kinds* and scale of cities we’ve built with that brief, massive inflow of extra energy are not sustainable, that they are inevitably doomed to terminal decay or battering to bits (probably the latter in cases like NYC), and that our energy resources are indeed no match for nature’s. The $64,000 Question is whether we will come to that acceptance while we still have some small chance of remaking our communities in forms that may be (more) sustainable in descent, instead of repeatedly shoring up the wreckage.

      I’m not optimistic, but perhaps now is a time when we might be able to suggest, for instance, that building high rise monstrosities and expensive residences on Atlantic barrier islands is, err. . . uneconomic. Maybe a few who normally ignore us, or worse, will be in a more receptive frame of mind. . .

      And this could be a truly opportune moment to address the nuke issue, as PWD suggests. The mainstream coverage has been minimal and dismissive, of course (“No danger. . .”), but I expect that we will be learning more details as the days go by — and we already know that one unit was shut down because of external grid failure while, at another plant, water levels came within inches of the cooling pumps for the spent fuel pool. Shades of Fukushima! These were scary damned near misses. If we can explain them with clarity and share them wisely, we might be able to draw some serious attention to the issue.

      After all, if even we had any doubt, it should be entirely clear in the wake of this event: we really could lose the whole Northeastern US in one fell swoop.


      • Thanks, Doug. You say we need to remake our communities into resilient lower energy cities and villages, perhaps like this, something that bounces when struck instead of shattering into fire, flood, and frenzy.

        The unimaginative TV show, Revolution, depicts life 15 years after a sudden halt of electricity in the US. But the show ignores the fundamental truth of nuclear power’s dependence on electricity. Period. Here’s a technology that blows up catastrophically, scattering long term poisons shortly after we stop high tech, fossil-fuel based support systems. Several days after regional cessation of electric power, many NPPs would melt down. Can we afford the luxury of NPPs in the face of declining energy production? We need nuclear power to maintain the electric grid. But if the electric grid fails, nuclear power fails. This is just one example of the interconnected dependencies that Sandy has exposed.

  • Examples of blind spots about energy basis for complex urban cities. How many diesel generators are running right now in Lower Manhattan???

    “Regarding the data center at 111 8th Ave. Orchard said that the company ‘expects fuel delivery to the site will be possible prior to depleting on-site reserves.'”

    And here’s a comment this morning from one of our exceptional financiers at the Ticker forum. “Walked in from Astoria,
    Queens to midtown Manhattan this morning. Definitely some signs of damage here and there but nothing too devastating. I don’t know how long it will take to fix lower Manhattan, but things are getting back to normal pretty quickly in much of the city — at least the 5 miles or so I walked of it this morning.”

    So where does he think his food comes from, and how it gets there? What about the supply trucks, with all of the tunnels flooded and LaGuardia underwater? What about the water system, and the laborers for myriad tasks in the city core? The electrical, water, plumbing, waste removal, transportation, communication, computerization, security, and supply chains are such a seamless part of NYC’s core that we don’t see it, pulling in resources from all over. You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. The core of NYC is about to undergo a learning curve that could help illustrate our blind spots about hierarchy and complexity.

    • truthoutnow

      PWA, thanks for your thoughtful presentation and responses. One thing y’all are not taking into account, aside from anthropogenic causes and abilities to react are the High Impact Low Frequency (HILF) events which visit us from time to time. One is solar storms such as those that disrupted northern Canada back in the late 80’s, we are even more vulnerable now as we have become more techinically complex and dependant. Others include the tectonic plates shifts, meterors, and volcanic activity, any of which we absolutley have no ability to prevent or control and any of which can cause, among other things, the tsunamis which resulted in the Fukushimi situation and earlier in the Indian Ocean. We can’t even predict most of these until it’s way too late to do anything and judging by the behavior of people who refused to evacuate because of Sandy show a disturbing tendancy of our species to ignore reality until we loose everything we have or are injured/killed by it.

      Time for some relevant humor. The waters are rising and a sheriff’s deputy cruises by this one old timer’s house and offers him a ride out but he refuses. As the rising water forces the man up to his second floor, a sheriff’s patrol boat offers to take him to safety but he ignores them. As the water keeps rising he is found sitting on his roof and a helicopter offers to lower a basket for him and he declines. As he drowns and gets to the pearly gates he angrily asks why the divine did not save him to which the divine responds “I sent you a car, a boat, and a helicopter, how many more offers did you need?”

      • Thanks Truthout, the HILF pulses from the larger scale are the reorganizing forces that will force us to change. That is what I meant by catastrophic pulses in the thesis statement: “This post describes Sandy as a catastrophic pulse in relation to the problems of dense urban living, complexity, and digitization.” If a widespread category 1 storm can shut us down so quickly and resolutely, then what will a bigger pulse do to us? There are just too many of us, reliant on complexity that only works with a) electricity and b) digitization. These are two dividing lines as we devolve. We have taken that last, dangerous step into the highest trophic level by digitizing everything. So when those big pulses do come, we’ve taken one step too many on the gangplank and we fall right off.

        Hospitals are examples of too much vulnerable complexity in this situation, with just in time staffing, supplies, medications, reliance on elevators and electricity for everything, including sewage removal and water, not to mention more complex needs such as computerized charting, computerized labs, computerized order entry, computerized infrastructure (doors, security, communication, and so on). It is easier to back down from a lower trophic level. Those hospitals that have adopted digital systems whole hog are in the biggest trouble when crisis comes. But hospitals are just one example of this problem. You’re right, who coulda’ knowed. I think people may heed the warning this time and start building some basic resiliency.

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