Survival Strategies for Systemic Failures

Brian Hicks

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted January 22, 2010

This week I had my first up-close-and-personal experience with sandbags.

The five-storm series lashing the Bay Area this week is expected to dump at least 15 inches of rain on my area, and the second lash was a whopper.

Torrential rains. Biblical rains. Raining lions and wolves. Thunder like the drums of doom. Lightning splitting redwood trees. Pounding hail.

I’ll spare you the details, but a ridiculous arrangement of a drainage culvert under the street and another pipe running under my wacky rental house failed. I woke up to a torrent of water sweeping against the house, causing the wall in my office to buckle and water to seep into the carpet.

The landlords were MIA. I had to take action.

Fortunately, my town has its act pretty well together. I quickly located my nearest location to pick up sandbags and the pile of sand, and 13 bags and two trips later I succeeded in diverting the water away from the house. "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" droned on in my head as I contemplated the consequences of bad urban planning and the virtues of good emergency planning.

As I write, the fourth storm has arrived, and it’s a wet one. I can only hope that my temporary measures hold up. Barometric pressure readings in San Francisco and San Diego broke their record lows this week.

Now, I don’t want to complain. Last January was the third-driest on record with a lousy .58 inches of rain and temps in the 80s. It was gorgeous weather, but unsettling because it felt so very wrong. My plum tree bloomed far too early and the harvest was so weak I didn’t even bother breaking out the canning gear last year. Plus, Lord knows we need the water.

But when infrastructure is pushed to extremes, it can fail…and as I saw so clearly this week, there is no stopping a flood.

I took a few lessons from the experience.

Rebellion as a Survival Strategy

As I discussed in last week’s article on secession and the green power rebellion, when you have to take the situation into your own hands, you do.

The first thing I did with the sandbags was block the inlet to the culvert, and divert water across the street. I figured the city might be unhappy with me, but I had to crimp the incoming flow and limit the damage somehow. (Don’t get excited – I did give the fire department my address, and tell them what I intended to do first. They said to call if I needed help.)

My temporary disabling of a tiny part of the city’s infrastructure, because I had to, is a minor case of a larger point. As I wrote last week, the almost-state of Jefferson nearly seceded from California and Oregon, and Marin County is trying to take control of its electrical power procurement, for the same reasons: because they felt they had to.

Two weeks ago, Gov. Schwarzenegger said that California couldn’t afford to be a "donor state," getting 78 cents back from the feds for every dollar it sends in, anymore. One tactic suggested by Andrew J. Chang and Justin L. Adams, former economists for various California state governors, in an SF Gate editorial, would keep $5 billion in the state instead of paying it in federal taxes via a change in state tax deduction rules.

If a California tax rebellion is in the cards — again, out of self-preservation — it would disable some the federal financial infrastructure just as surely as my sandbags did that culvert.

Still Doing "A Heckuva Job"

Falling back on your own resources only works, however, when you have them. What can Haiti fall back on now? Very little. Their external dependency has never been so vivid, nor has the lesson on how weak emergency response can be.

More than a week after the earthquake, critical medical supplies like antibiotics still aren’t getting to where they’re needed. It took days for water and food to get from the Port-au-Prince airport to people less than a mile away.

It would appear that much of our emergency response remains ad-hoc, even after the lessons of Katrina and Rita. Why, after all the disasters we have lived through, are there still no standard operating procedures to mobilize volunteer medical personnel, food and water, cash contributions, earth-moving equipment, and temporary shelters?

Instead we have a reported inventory of several thousand Katrina trailers that were never used. We rely on a Twitter rumor mill to learn how to contribute cash or food, and share tips on how not to fall for scams. We have to bully airlines into waiving baggage fees so volunteer doctors on tiny church budgets can even get to the scene!

The only organized response we seem to have is the military one, which comes with a whole set of its own problems, and is sorely stretched when faced with widespread disaster.

Is this the best we can do, America? Is this what I have to fall back on, if my state’s utter dependence on external connections fails?

Earthquake: A Thought Experiment

I wondered: If a major earthquake had hit California instead of Haiti, just before this deluge arrived, where would we be right now? Say, an 8.1 on the San Andreas Fault followed by an 8.0 on the Hayward Fault a few days later, putting the major population centers of Los Angeles and the Bay Area out of commission?

Where we’d be is in a world of hurt. The repercussions would last for decades.

Grocery store shelves could empty in three days or less, and stay empty for a long time. Gasoline supplies would probably be locked down immediately. Flooding and snow like we’re having this week could render key arteries impassable at a critical time.  

I don’t know how long it would take for civil order to break down in, say, LA if the grid was down for a few weeks and emergency services were interrupted, but I do know that it took less than 48 hours after Katrina.

Backup power is virtually nonexistent. Worse, nearly all of the grid-tied solar systems would be down along with the grid, because they don’t have backup and the grid lacks micro-islanding capability.

Aid shipments into California could be restricted to the ports in a heartbeat. Earthquakes like that could easily take out the handful of roads, rail lines, and power transmission lines that would add up to critical failure.

It would also be an absolute death blow to the state’s balance sheet. The cost of recovery alone would do the job, let alone the lost revenue from oil and gas and food that can’t get to market anymore. Would it be bailed out, or somehow absorbed by the federal structure? Could it be? Would the federal government borrow another couple-trillion dollars just to repair California?

Or would California fall back, and reorganize into local regional structures?

Is California so different from Haiti in its self-sufficiency? Could I not become a natural disaster refugee as easily — in a heartbeat?

To take the idea to a broader level, we know that there is no plan for oil shortages in America, and that our grid security is a joke. After decades of inaction and delay, there is little reason to hope that these issues will be addressed at a national level — even as their urgency grows.

Since we are now staring down the barrel of peak oil, should we not start thinking about smaller municipal fallback strategies and prepare for the day that oil shortages start to bite?

The U.S. has a strategic petroleum reserve, but where is the cash reserve for massive emergencies? Most households have one, but not cities, counties, states, or the federal government. Here in "earthquake country," residents are repeatedly reminded to keep enough food, water, batteries, and so forth stocked up to survive at least three days. Yet at the municipal level, that backup doesn’t exist.

Resistance or Resilience?

It doesn’t have to be this way.

There’s no technical reason why cities or larger regions can’t "island" from the main grid and fall back on their own power supply. Texas is currently the only state that can. There is no technical reason why every building and every city can’t have its own backup power supply. Many towns have enough rooftop solar potential to refrigerate food, keep communications and furnace fans working, and supply a minimal amount of lighting. The enabling grid enhancements and demand management technology are available off the shelf, and the investment would be modest.

Every town, county, and state could have a mobilization plan for its local medical, food, and water resources. With the array of communication technologies available, there’s no reason why local talent can’t be organized at a moment’s notice. If Wal-Mart can run a just-in-time global supply chain, surely we can get a few doctors to the scene of a disaster in 24 hours.

Entech Solar (OTC: ENSL), a tiny company that used to be known as WorldWater & Solar Technologies (former ticker: WWAT), had a beautiful little system called Mobile MaxPure, which could be driven to a site on a trailer and within 30 minutes, provide enough solar power to run water pumping and purification systems, command center equipment, and satellite phones.

After being on the market for several years, it was discontinued last year, presumably due to a lack of demand. If we were serious about emergency response, there would be thousands of them in storage, ready to be driven or delivered by helicopter on a moment’s notice.

Every house with a lawn and every city with a park could be growing local food supply instead. If the 3,000-mile-long food distribution chain breaks down, there should be a subsistence-level supply of 20-mile radius food to fall back upon at the very least.

Nor is there any reason why towns and counties must rely on the banks for financing the build-out of local solar capacity. The banks have demonstrated for over a decade that they just don’t get it. It’s time we stopped looking to them. Local capital alone could finance enough local solar and backup supply to meet critical loads — if it were organized.

Options even exist for transportation backup. In places like Portland, OR, or Boulder, CO, a small army of bicycles with cargo trailers could be mobilized at any time to deliver food and critical supplies over the most broken of roads, if they had those strategies to accompany their bicycle-friendly urban planning.

We have the technology and the capital to do all these things. The only reason we don’t is because we value the present more than the future. We resist saving for a rainy day. We choose short-term gains over long-term security every time.

Awareness of these issues does seem to be growing, however, particularly at the township level. And I think it’s one of the hottest off-the-radar investing sectors.

As the complex of challenges around peak energy and climate change unfolds, I fully expect that awareness to evolve into action. Hundreds of companies will stand to benefit, in areas like water purification, power backup, smart grid technology, rooftop solar, and emergency response. 

Unlike national strategies, making a household or a small town minimally self-sufficient in energy and food seems to be a small enough chunk to bite off. In our meeting last week, the mayor was actually quite interested in my vision of energy self-sufficiency for my little town.

Thousands of towns like mine could implement their own solutions before the debate on national strategies even begins.

At this late hour, I’m betting they will.

Until next time,


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