Across the nation, we experience major threats nearly every year: hurricanes, wildfires, flooding, droughts, and other serious disasters. For these events, the nation has well-established response processes where the
federal government serves as a backstop for the robust efforts on individuals, businesses, communities, and states. Even as severe weather increases, the nation has steadily improved its ability to respond to growing
disasters and resulting outages—improving planning and coordination, hardening infrastructure, and building strong mutual aid agreements.
The risk posed by a catastrophic power outage, however, is not simply a bigger, stronger storm. It is something that could paralyze entire regions, with grave implications for the nation’s economic and social well-being. The NIAC was tasked to examine the nation’s ability to withstand a catastrophic power outage of a magnitude beyond modern experience, exceeding prior events in severity, scale, duration, and consequence.
The NIAC was challenged to think beyond even our most severe power disruptions, imagining an outage that stretches beyond days and weeks to months or years, and affects large swaths of the country. Unlike severe weather disasters, a catastrophic power outage may occur with little or no notice and result from myriad types of scenarios: for example, a sophisticated cyber-physical attack resulting in severe physical infrastructure damage; attacks timed to follow and exacerbate a major natural disaster; a large-scale wildfire, earthquake, or geomagnetic event; or a series of attacks or events over a short period of time that compound to create significant physical damage to our nation’s infrastructure. An event of this severity may also be an act of war, requiring a simultaneous military response that further draws upon limited resources.
For the purpose of this study, the NIAC focused not on the cause, but rather on the consequences of an event, which are best categorized as severe, widespread, and long-lasting. The type of event contemplated will include not only an extended loss of power, but also a cascading loss of other critical services—drinking water and wastewater systems, communications, financial services, transportation, fuel, healthcare, and others—which may slow recovery and impede re-energizing the grid.
Most importantly, the scale of the event—stretching across states and regions, affecting tens of millions of people—would exceed and exhaust mutual aid resources and capabilities. The ability to share public and
private resources across businesses and jurisdictions underpins our nation’s emergency response plans and strategies today. (See Appendix C for a more detailed definition of a catastrophic outage).
This profound threat requires a new national focus. The NIAC found that our existing plans, response resources, and coordination strategies would be outmatched by an event of this severity. Significant action is needed to prepare for a catastrophic power outage that could last for weeks or months.
FEMA is updating the NRF with a goal to increase the emphasis of the role of the private sector and individuals in emergency response; add an emergency support function (ESF) to coordinate government and industry response; and focus on outcomes and prioritizing rapid stabilization of lifeline functions. As part of this process, the NIAC recommends FEMA should:
# Engage all stakeholders including SLTT governments, NGOs, and private sector owners and operators to ensure the new framework is accessible and understood by all stakeholders.
#Consider practical and actionable ways to best leverage industry during the response to restore critical lifeline sectors more quickly and efficiently.
#Exercise the National Cyber Incident Response Plan with the private sector to identify how it will work operationally during a real-life scenario and support the NRF.
# DOE Emergency Authorities: Building on 10 C.F.R § 205, DOE is working with Grid Security Emergency (GSE) stakeholders to outline how an emergency order is communicated and build
exercises to better understand what conditions the federal government may support during a GSE.2
#Potential emergency orders and provisions should account for regulatory, cost, and liability issues that may speed up the ability to issue and implement orders during a catastrophic power outage when timing will be crucial.
#This process should also establish a role/structure for private sector owners and operators to provide crucial analysis to inform the declaration of a grid emergency.
Monitoring and assessment capability must be in place and survivable against adversary attack and subversion.
What Would Happen If You Were Stuck In The Dark Forever?
This is What Would Happen If, a close examination of mundane hypothetical situations. Each week, we look at something that you could do but probably never would, and take it to its logical endpoint. This week: What would happen if you were trapped in unending darkness?
It’s easy to take light for granted. We wake up every morning and it greets us through the windows. We come home from work and summon it with the flick of a switch. The dull glow of one last glance at your phone bathes us, even as we try to fall asleep.
Lights signal progress, opportunity. We are drawn to bright lights and big cities, even as they drown out the light from much, much larger celestial bodies burning and exploding far, far away.
So many of us concern ourselves with an excess of light in our lives, but what about the opposite? What might happen if you were to plunge yourself into total, unending darkness and never leave? We spoke with Dr. Karl Citek, an optometrist and professor of Optometry at Pacific University, to shed some light on this dark hypothetical.
Initially, everything is fine. Your mind might be racing, struggling to pick up on the slightest bit of sensory information. There might be bumps you may or may not have heard, or brushes against your skin you may or may not have felt. But that’s all in your mind. It takes a little while for your eyes to physically adjust
Your eyes rely on two overlapping systems for visual perception. As you might already know, within your retina sit a number of rods and cones. Our current understanding of our eye is that these rods and cones work in tandem to create a composite image that we all know and love as our vision. The cones are there to help us see color and detail, this is known as our photopic vision. The rods are responsible for our sensitivity to light, which we call our scotopic vision. An easy way to think about this is that our photopic vision works well in in the daytime, and our scotopic vision becomes useful only when it gets dark out. A day vision and a night vision, if you will.
As such, when the lights go out, your photopic vision is the first to fully adjust. Though “fully adjust” is a bit of a misnomer. After about 7 to 12 minutes, your photopic vision is maxed out in terms of the amount of color and detail you could possibly see in complete and utter darkness. Your scotopic vision takes a little longer, fully maxing out its sensitivity in around 45 minutes to an hour. Even now, although your eyes are fully cranked, without any light, you can’t see anything.
This might seem disorienting at first, since you’re always used to seeing something, but the real terror will only manifest itself hours, maybe even days later. Your body relies on light to determine when it should release melatonin, and thus when you should go to sleep. “There is evidence that our eyes contain certain photoreceptors that mediate this process but do not contribute to visual image perception,” says Citek. “Very much like the pixels in a digital camera that ‘read’ light level and adjust the aperture and shutter speed but do not contribute to the final picture itself.”
Without light, your brain doesn’t know when, if at all, to release that sweet, sweet melatonin. So, somewhat counterintuitively, sitting in the dark will eventually leave you sleep deprived. You’ll just be sitting there, staring into absolute darkness, wishing you could fall asleep but cannot.
There’s no telling what sort of mental toll this will take on you, but physiologically speaking, your eyes are fine. They might be cranked to maximum sensitivity, but they aren’t straining or degrading. They are just sitting in your head, trying to take in the light that doesn’t exist.
In fact, if you were to be suddenly thrust back into the light, things would go back to normal in a matter of moments. Granted, your eyes are still set to Maximum Sensitivity, so any abrupt changes in light might feel harsh. “In all cases, when you turn on a light, it will initially seem very bright,” says Dr. Citek. “But light adaptation should take only a few seconds in a normal person, regardless of the brightness of the light.” No doubt you’ve experienced it to a lesser degree before. After a few seconds, it would be like nothing ever happend at all.
Darkness thrusts you into a incomprehensible sea of fear and isolation. It’s easy to see things that aren’t there, believe things that seemed impossible moments before. You might believe your eyes are straining so hard that you’ll never see again.
But take comfort in the fact that no matter how dark it gets, no matter how interminable it may seem, eventually the light will return. And your eyes will be there to see it. At least, until the light fades again.
The nation has steadily improved its ability to respond to major disasters and the power outages that often result. But increasing threats—whether severe natural disasters, cyber-physical attacks, electromagnetic events, or some combination—present new challenges for protecting the national power grid and recovering quickly from a catastrophic power outage.
The President’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC) was tasked to examine the nation’s ability to respond to and recover from a catastrophic power outage of a magnitude beyond modern experience,
exceeding prior events in severity, scale, duration, and consequence. Simply put, how can the nation best prepare for and recover from a catastrophic power outage, regardless of the cause?
After interviews with dozens of senior leaders and experts and an extensive review of studies and statutes, we found that existing national plans, response resources, and coordination strategies would be outmatched by a catastrophic power outage. This profound risk requires a new national focus. Significant public and private action is needed to prepare for and recover from a catastrophic outage that could leave large parts of the nation without power for weeks or months, and cause service failures in other sectors— including water and wastewater, communications, transportation, healthcare, and financial services—that are critical to public health and safety and our national and economic security.
Be prepared with alternative lighting. Have a flashlight and extra batteries somewhere that’s easily accessible so you won’t be fumbling in the dark.
You can’t control the weather or your city’s power grid, but you can be prepared for a blackout with equipment and knowledge.
When the power grid goes down, your city water supply may soon follow, says Tompkin Lee, The Family Handyman field editor. So fill up buckets and bottles with water. Fill the bathtub, too. But most drains are not all that tight, and in a few hours all that precious water may be gone. To prevent that, seal the drain with duct tape before you fill the tub. Try these home improvement projects that will double the value of your home.
How to Prepare for a Blackout
Turn your car into a generator
A power inverter, which turns DC current from your car into AC current for electric gadgets, is the next best thing to a generator when it comes to surviving a blackout. Small units can recharge your computer or phone. Larger ones can power a fridge or power tools.
There is quite a list of supplies that are necessary to have in a disaster. Flashlights, a battery-operated radio (or hand cranked), and extra batteries are the most obvious. An alternate source for heat and cooking is a good option as well. Be sure not to BBQ or use kerosene lamps inside, as they can cause carbon monoxide poisoning. Plan for fuel to run it.
If it’s in the budget, a generator can make life seem normal. Be sure that you purchase a model that is UL approved (look for the symbol). If you do purchase a generator talk with a qualified electrician about how to use it and hook it up before you HAVE to use it. Store the instructions with your generator.
If there is a storm coming that has the potential to knock out the power then stock up on extras. Consider some of these:
Diapers, formula, and other baby supplies.
Keep cash on hand because your debit and credit won’t be an option if you have to buy something, the machines need a power source to work.
Keep your car at least half full of gas. Remember gas pumps are electrically powered, so once the power is out all you can do is ration the fuel that you have.
Having extra water is important since an outage can affect your local water treatment facility, making your water unsafe.
Also, since you want to be able to eat, have a stock of pantry stable food that is easy and quick to heat. You need something that heats quickly to conserve your chosen emergency cooking fuel.
Refrigerator and Freezer
Make provisions for what you have in your fridge and freezer as well. Ice, in addition to being another source of water in a blackout, will also help keep your foods frozen longer. If you have a lot of extra space in your refrigerator or freezer, fill containers of water and leave at least an inch of headspace. Not only does this frozen water maintain the temperature of your fridge or freezer in a blackout, but it won’t have to use as much energy to keep things cool. Have a cooler on hand in case you really need to keep something cold, like certain medications.