Protecting Water as a Lifeline in Disaster

Water is vital to life. Water and wastewater are taken for granted, with people believing that the faucet will turn on and the toilet will flush – that is, until a disaster. To ensure access to critical resources such as water when needed the most requires understanding the scale and scope of the problem, identifying ways to preserve such lifeline services, and strategizing to best allocate these resources during both disaster and non-disaster times.

As the lack of electrical power continued for days, Hurricane Sandy in 2012 provided many lessons learned. Generators started to break down because most emergency generators are not designed for continuous use for days or weeks. Competition for generators increased as the outage continued. Many generators ran out of fuel and too many, even for hospitals, were located in basements subject to flooding. Some emergency managers did not understand the need for the water sector to have generators. And, according to the Electric Infrastructure Security Council’s E-Pro® Handbook II, fuel transport companies needed emergency credits when their customers could not pay for fuel deliveries.

Understanding the Scale & Scope of the Problem

In the eight hardest-hit states, about 11 billion gallons of untreated and partially treated sewage (including 3.45 billion gallons of raw sewage) flowed into rivers, bays, canals, and, in some cases, city streets. Downstream water treatment plants were designed for normal raw water sources, but not these heavily contaminated sources. Additionally, citizens attempting to use such contaminated surface water sources as potable water or to create potable water faced health risks akin to those in third world nations. The American Water Works Association (AWWA), in its 2013 after action report on Hurricane Sandy, stated that giving the water/wastewater sector priority for generators and fuel during power outages is important.

Many of the water utilities have found it too risky and too costly to obtain generators “just-in-time” after a disaster, in lieu of owning them. Unfortunately, obtaining “just-in-time” generators may not be possible in disasters such as hurricanes and less feasible if there were long-term, widespread electric power outages caused by threats to the power grid such as a cyberattack, physical attack, solar storm, or electromagnetic pulse. Another issue is that there are a limited number of emergency generators. For example, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has 400 generators for its 10 regions. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has 25 locations with 30 generators each, primarily reserved for Defense Department requirements. To put these numbers in perspective, there are 160,000 water/wastewater systems. In addition, there is a challenge to allocate skilled people capable of installing the generators and handling the logistics of getting the equipment and fuel stocks to the right locations (see the “Limited Supplies of Emergency Power Generators” section in the E-Pro Handbook II).

Critical infrastructure is greatly dependent upon water, and water is dependent on electric power. Powering Through: From Fragile Infrastructure to Community Resilience examined the July 2016 National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC) Report on Water Sector Resilience (see Figure 1). The NIAC report:

provides an excellent illustration of how tightly coupled modern civilization is to modern water delivery systems. It clearly illustrates that every category of water user surveyed will experience significantly degraded capabilities after 8 hours without water. Thus, even if they have emergency generators that can provide on-site power for an extended period, they are degraded nonetheless by a lack of water. Additionally, should the water utilities have electric power, they maintain a limited quantity of treatment chemicals on site, and chemical supply chains depend upon electricity. Catastrophic loss of potable water has many consequences to include degrading or eliminating much of healthcare capacity both in hospitals, and via first responders. The NIAC Report on the Water Sector indicates that hospital capabilities may be degraded by 67% to 99% within just two hours of loss of water services. Emergency replacement of healthcare facilities relies on nearby facilities being operable. This is not a feasible planning consideration in the event of an extended regional or larger-scale loss of electrical power and corresponding loss of water and wastewater utilities. (See p. 27 of Powering Through)

Fig. 1. National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC) critical infrastructure dependence on water and potential function degradation following loss of water services (Source: NIAC, July 2016).

Fig. 1. National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC) critical infrastructure dependence on water and potential function degradation following loss of water services (Source: NIAC, July 2016).

Identifying Ways to Preserve Lifeline Services

One of the goals during a long-term power regional or national outage would be to keep people in their homes where they are safer than becoming stranded attempting travel elsewhere. In a severe power outage that is wide spread, there would be no place for the population to flee because no reachable destination would have power. If water and wastewater are available, people are more likely to remain in their homes. Without water, there could be a “tipping point” beyond which lives will be lost.  Then FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate has remarked that loss of water service threatens lives and urges, “Keep the water on” (see 2015 Koppel article). Ideally, the highest priority for generators, fuel, chemical distribution, and maintenance materials would be the water/wastewater systems.

As mentioned in Powering Through, uncoordinated and unplanned self-evacuations are contraindicated. The Three Mile Island (TMI) Nuclear Incident of March 1979 showed that self-evacuation was not beneficial and caused prolonged congestion of transportation systems and fuel shortages. Between March 28 and April 4 of that year, an estimated 144,000 regional residents self-evacuated from the area surrounding the power plant. Within the 20-mile radius of TMI, the residential population was about 600,000; so roughly one-quarter of the population evacuated, mainly before official instructions were broadcast. Powering Through stated, “Since that incident, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has mandated installation and monitoring of radiological sensors within designated evacuation zones of licensed nuclear power plants, in part to avert rumor-based evacuations that congest and undermine recovery capabilities.” 

Ted Koppel explored the real or potential contradictions among federal policies to prepare for and to recover from a long-term grid blackout in his book, Lights Out (2015). He wrote, “In the case of a power grid going down urging people to stay in their homes may be exactly the right thing to do . . . leaving routes open for resupply convoys.”

For a long-term electric grid outage, relying on “shelter in place” as the preferred policy to the maximum extent feasible has multiple advantages, including conservation of scarce fuel, prioritizing uses of transportation routes, preserving law and order, and benefitting from community networking by those in their own neighborhoods. Others, such as the EPRO® Black Sky Systems Engineering Process, share this preference for “shelter in place” outcomes. A preferential policy to shelter in place depends on the resilience of “lifeline services” such as pre-positioned food, restoration of water and wastewater services, essential transportation, and communications. The former FEMA administrator, Craig Fugate, in 2015 expressed concern about the advisability of mass evacuations for long-duration disasters. The government, he noted in Koppel’s Lights Out, “Can’t move ’em fast enough.” And Koppel replied, “anyway where are you going to move them?”


Strategizing for Re-Allocation of Resources

In managing the water supply, a water mitigation strategy could aim at providing just enough water to sustain most of the population without fully energizing the water system. Typically, when communities are without power, the demand on water is reduced because people and businesses are not running water-intensive appliances, such as washing machines and dishwashers. Utilities could also define the level of service goals for long-term emergencies – for example, water quantity and quality.

One possible level of service goal might be average winter daily demand since this is typically significantly lower than water demand during other times of the year. Emergency response plans/playbooks ideally would reflect these reduced levels of service goals. For example, if water and wastewater systems were re-engineered to provide just 20% of capacity, recoverable within 24 hours, one could sustain wastewater system pressure and support emergency water rationing. The huge waste of water under normal conditions could serve as a cushion for emergencies. It would also be best to maintain water pressure even if the water cannot be properly treated for human consumption. This would allow for delivery of water to each residence where it could be boiled or otherwise decontaminated, and also provide water for firefighting (see p. 150 of E-Pro Handbook II).

Additional information about emergency water supply preparation, sanitation, and hygiene can be found at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. In conclusion, keeping water and wastewater facilities operational during disasters is critical and needs to be a high priority. Citizens could be prepared using CDC guidelines and having supplies and water filters in households and businesses.


Significant contribution to this article was provided by:

Stephen Volandt, who is vice president of Auroros Inc., a contracting and management-consulting firm based in Raleigh, North Carolina. He specializes in successfully connecting strategic purpose, risk management, decision-making, enterprise project portfolio management, operational user requirements, and the technology that supports them. He co-authored the DoD CIO Executive board governance charter. Mr. Volandt served as the lead architect for transforming the multi-billion-dollar United States Marine Corps business enterprise to better support combat operations and readiness cycles. He provided policy, operations modeling, IT and communications modeling, planning, and budget justification for a global U.S. Army weapon of mass destruction response capability; and was a principal operations planner and architect for joint U.S. Army and National Guard response to smuggled nuclear weapon ground burst terrorism in the homeland. He is a former U.S. Marine Corps. He graduated from The Citadel. He is the 2nd vice president for the Eastern North Carolina InfraGard Chapter, as the deputy director, InfraGard SE Region EMP-SIG, and as the National InfraGard EMP-SIG administrative officer. He authored the exercise scenario, exercise process, provided the maturity model for the 2015 EMP SIG annual workshop and conference. His current passion is the design, funding, and creation of resilient communities.

Mary Lasky

Mary Lasky, a Certified Business Continuity Professional (CBCP), serves as the program manager for business continuity planning for the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU/APL), where she coordinated the APL Incident Command System Team. She also as a member of: InfraGard, where she is the vice chair for the InfraGard EMP-SIG. In Howard County, Maryland, she served as: president of the Community Emergency Response Network Inc. (CERN); president of the board of directors of Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center; and for Leadership Howard County is co-chair of the Steering Committee for the Leadership Premier Program. For many years, she has been on the adjunct faculty of the Johns Hopkins University Whiting School of Engineering. She is the immediate past president of the Central Maryland Chapter of the Association of Contingency Planners (ACP) and has held a variety of supervisory positions in information technology and in business services. Her consulting work has included helping nonprofit organizations create and implement their business continuity plans.

William R. Harris

William R. Harris is a senior advisor to the congressionally mandated EMP Commission since January 2017. He serves on the board of directors, and is the secretary of the Foundation for Resilient Societies, a New Hampshire-based nonprofit engaged in research and education on critical infrastructure protection. He is an international lawyer (Harvard, J.D., 1966) and former energy, nuclear non-proliferation, environmental, and national security project manager at the RAND Corporation. Working with physicists and engineers, he supports electric and other critical infrastructure “reliability standard” development for international, federal, and state institutions.



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