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Hurricane Sandy and Our Energy Infrastructure

November 30, 2012 - 12:00pm

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Acting Under Secretary of Energy David Sandalow's remarks, as delivered, at the Columbia University Energy Symposium on November 30, 2012.

One month ago last night, Hurricane Sandy slammed into the East Coast of the United States. The storm first made landfall just south of Atlantic City, New Jersey, with 80-mile per hour winds, torrential rains and record storm surges. In Manhattan’s Battery Park, the ocean rose nine feet higher than a typical high tide and three feet higher than the previous record.   Sandy’s 1100-mile diameter made it the largest Atlantic hurricane on record.

The results were devastating. Tragically, more than one hundred lives were lost in the storm. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families who lost loved ones, were displaced by the storm and are still living through its terrible aftermath.

Today, suffering from Sandy continues. Many thousands of people are just beginning the arduous journey of rebuilding homes and lives. Many communities have been altered forever. The road to recovery will be long, but the Obama Administration is committed to standing with you.

Aside from the loss of life, Sandy’s impact on energy infrastructure was especially devastating. High winds took down power lines. Rising seas flooded electric substations. Within 24 hours of Sandy’s landfall, more than 8 million utility customers lost power. Fuel distribution networks were paralyzed. Critical terminals for petroleum and petroleum products were badly damaged. Many service stations lost power and couldn’t pump gas, leading to long gasoline lines in the New York/New Jersey area.

My remarks today will focus on Hurricane Sandy and our energy infrastructure -- both chronicling parts of the federal response and offering preliminary thoughts on lessons learned.

The Federal Response

State and local governments are the front lines of disaster response. They respond to thousands of incidents each year without federal involvement. However for major disasters, state and local governments typically seek federal assistance. The Stafford Act, enacted in 1988, gives the federal government authority to respond to major disasters and identifies conditions under which assistance may be provided.

As Sandy approached, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) moved to activate other federal agencies that would be needed for preparations in the days leading up to the storm. This included Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Transportation, and the Department of Health and Human Services. Teams from these agencies and others worked throughout the weekend to coordinate logistics. Because of this, 12 hours before the storm hit, combined emergency response teams from all these agencies were at the ready. At DOE, our fuel and electricity experts were disseminating data to states about what critical energy facilities and infrastructure would need to be protected and what the likely requirements would be in communities along the storm’s path.

On the morning of October 30th, President Obama sent his leadership team a clear message to cut through the bureaucracy, eliminate any red tape, and mobilize immediately for rapid response. While the federal response was swift and broad-based, our work is not done. But we made important contributions that helped people get their power back faster, get businesses and hospitals up and running.

Electricity

I’d like to take a moment to thank the thousands of workers who came from around the country to help get the power back on. Local utilities organized Mutual Assistance Groups -- a tool used by the utility industry to respond to storms. They moved emergency workers and equipment into position. All together, more than 70,000 linemen, technicians and other workers arriving from around the nation to help with power restoration.

During the days just before and after Sandy hit, federal and utility officials spoke at many levels on a regular basis.  One immediate result of this collaboration: The White House declared that utility workers were to be treated as “first responders.” That allowed utility trucks priority access to emergency fuel supplies and other resources. In addition, President Obama approved a 100% cost share under the Stafford Act to conduct emergency power restoration. This accelerated collaboration between federal, state and local bureaucracies.

Fuel

Hurricane Sandy also caused significant damage to fuel distribution infrastructure. Here again, the federal government moved quickly to help. The Coast Guard helped get the ports open, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano issued a temporary, blanket waiver of the Jones Act to immediately allow additional fuel tankers coming from the Gulf of Mexico to provide additional fuel resources to the region.

The Environmental Protection Agency temporarily waived Federal clean gasoline requirements for gasoline in 16 States to remove potential barriers to the supply of gasoline into the region, and the Administration proactively reached out to industry to ensure that generators were delivered to fueling stations that lacked electrical power to increase overall fuel availability.

And, for the first time in history, the President directed the Energy Department to loan the Department of Defense  diesel from the Northeast Home Heating Oil Reserve.

Our energy infrastructure is a complex network of interrelated systems that function across jurisdictions and industries. To function effectively, responders were required to operate as a complex network -- bringing together government officials, the private sector, community groups and others. Working closely with state and local officials, the federal government undertook key efforts to get the region’s fuel system back up and running.

Lessons Learned

While many of the energy related issues are behind us, the response to this tragedy is ongoing.  It is never too soon to take stock, and begin to think about some initial lessons we’ve learned from Sandy.

First, an obvious point: modern society depends on energy services. We all know this but -- especially here at an energy symposium -- it may be worth highlighting. Without electricity, homes and businesses are dark. Beyond that, elevators stop, many grocers can’t sell food, traffic lights don’t work, hospitals can’t treat patients, refineries can’t operate, pipelines can’t move product and service stations can’t sell gasoline. And without a steady supply of petroleum, today’s transportation system cannot function.

A second lesson from Sandy -- citizens with cell phones can be powerful sources of information in a disaster. That depends on cell networks being operational and phone owners being able to charge their phones -- problems that plagued many in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. But smart phones and social media tools have the capacity to improve situational awareness in a disaster and dramatically improve response planning. Today there are over 330 million mobile subscribers in the U.S. -- more than one device per person on average. The best-selling camera in the world is the Nokia cell phone. Combined with social media like Twitter, Facebook and Gas Buddy, mobile devices empower citizens to quickly and accurately report problems. They can also help keep those affected by a disaster informed. Governments, utilities and others can do more to capture the potential of mobile devices to speed response and recovery.

A third lesson -- in flood zones, critical electrical equipment such as breaker boxes and building connections should not be in basements or on ground floors. This point may seem obvious, but this basic vulnerability is found in thousands of buildings in low-lying areas. Building codes in general do not address this. In the days and weeks following Hurricane Sandy, water damage to critical electric equipment dramatically slowed electric restoration in many locations.  

Fourth, with regards to fuel distribution, the Northeast might look to the Gulf Coast for some lessons. After Hurricane Katrina, refineries and other pieces of fuel infrastructure were hardened. Some power lines were put underground; backup generators were positioned; in some places, fuel infrastructure was elevated or barriers erected. Several years later, when Hurricane Ike approached, fuel storage tanks and pumping trucks were pre-positioned in key locations and priority was given to restoring power to fuel infrastructure, among other steps. More analysis will be needed to determine exactly what infrastructure hardening is most effective in the Northeast, but this is work we should do quickly.

Fifth, we ignore the climate threat at our peril. While we can’t attribute any particular weather event to climate change, we do know the temperature around the globe is increasing faster than was predicted even 10 years ago. We do know that the Arctic ice cap is melting faster than was predicted even five years ago. We do know that there have been more severe weather events here in North America, but also around the globe. By one calculation, every incremental inch of storm surge in New York City displaced an additional 6,000 people. Sea level has already risen 7 inches in the last 100 years and is projected to rise more than 30 inches in the next 100.mPresident Obama is a firm believer that climate change is real, that it is impacted by human behavior and carbon emissions. And as a consequence, we have an obligation to do something about it. To meet this threat, we must plan wisely, improve our infrastructure and cut emissions of heat-trapping gases.  The transition to a clean energy economy can help mitigate risks from extreme weather events and is a powerful driver of economic progress.

Finally, Hurricane Sandy was yet another reminder that disaster response is a complex undertaking that requires sustained partnerships engaging federal, state, and local agencies, the private sector and civil society, academia, and even community clubs and religious groups. Our work together must begin long before disaster strikes. There is always room for improvement, and Sandy has illustrated ways our energy systems are still vulnerable to disruption. We see that at every stage of disaster response, leadership matters. Planning matters. Community matters. As we care for those still suffering from Sandy’s wrath, let us pledge to learn from the past and improve our ability to respond in the future.  

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