Power Restoration Post-Disaster: How Long is Too Long?

Homeland Security Today ran an article reprinted from an AP article titled Power Outage Time After Sandy Not Extraordinary.  The article outlines an AP analysis of outage times from other hurricanes and storms and compares these to the duration of outages experienced by customers as a result of Hurricane Sandy.  To be honest, I’m not sure that the science behind this study is totally sound (it appears they compared only the duration of outages) as there are many factors involved in such a comparison to make it meaningful (such as type and age of infrastructure, damage to infrastructure, strength of hurricane, etc.).  That said, their apples to oranges comparison does lead to some legitimate statements.

I’m certainly not intending to diminish the issues associated with prolonged power outages.  For many it is an inconvenience (and we are extremely over reliant on electrical energy), but it does impact the health and well-being of a good portion of our population – especially in temperature extremes.  Through my experience in emergency management, however, it seems that many people are quite vocal about even the shortest of power outages.  These complaints quickly become political.  I even recall several years ago being pressured by a governor to ensure that power was restored prior to the Superbowl.  Yes, these things are important – practically and politically – but we also need to be realistic and understanding of the situation.

That situation comes down to the battle being fought by the utility companies.  Energy utilities are regulated, meaning that they are constantly bombarded by politicians and special interest groups.  Part of this regulation requires them to have disaster plans in place to address emergency outages and restoration.  With the experience of working 19 federally declared disasters, I’ve seen utility companies in action time and again – and to be completely honest, they impress the hell out of me.  They mobilize massive fleets of not only their own people, vehicles, and equipment but also those of other utility companies from far and wide as part of an elaborate and often used mutual aid system.  These crews need to be supervised, fed, housed, and supplied.  The logistics of power restoration is a massive undertaking – especially after a regional event such as Hurricane Sandy, where companies up the coast and throughout the northeast are all competing for the same resources – especially utility poles.

Utilities conduct restoration efforts in priority, first addressing urgent needs, such as hospitals and nursing homes, while also trying to effect repairs of their energy superstructure, such as primary distribution lines and substations.  After that, they need to literally examine every line in their system – with priority given to those that feed larger populations.  This takes time.  Consider that they are initially fighting lingering weather conditions and may be held back by additional foul weather such as heavy rains and high winds which can hinder their efforts and even set them back with additional damages.  After a storm, they are also working on clearing debris so they can safely access their infrastructure.  Combined, this is a lot of time, effort, and resources – all of which costs a lot of money.

There is no benefit to a utility company dragging their feet on a restoration effort.  Given the expenses and the negative press, they want to finish it as quickly as they possibly can.  Can they do it better?  Of course – there is always room for improvement.  The article says that “…Sandy caused 8.5 million power outages across 21 states, the highest outage total ever.”

The utility restoration effort found an unlikely ally – New Jersey Governor Chris Christie – who applauded their work.  A lesson other governors should probably learn.  Let’s work with them and support their efforts instead of being so quick to criticize.

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