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California blackouts are a planned disaster


Loss of economic activity because businesses can’t open, schools closed, perishable foods going bad, mobile phones can’t be charged and people with medical dependencies unable to plug in life sustaining equipment. These are all things that are commonly seen in the aftermath of a disaster that can hinder a community’s recovery and even lead to additional injuries and deaths. In the case of California’s blackouts, these effects are occurring in the name of preventing disasters. 

California’s largest utility, Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) shut down power to more than half a million people to prevent wildfires. This is a precautionary measure due to high winds and other conditions that are similar to those last year when PG&E equipment sparked some the deadliest wildfires in California’s history. The hope is that these power outages will avoid similar catastrophes. But even in the absence of an acute disaster, lives are still disrupted as if there has been a disaster. It is just at a lower intensity, and spread out over a much wider geography. 

Stories have already emerged of confusion over when and where the power would be shut off, as well as reports of lost revenue from business owners and preparations are being made for potential insurance claims from spoiled food from caterers and restaurants. Classes have been canceled at many schools and colleges. Health-care providers are also putting their disaster plans to the test and have been rescheduling appointments and moving critical medications in anticipation of the blackouts. Some estimates for the total economic impacts are more than $1 billion.

Of course, planned blackouts are a more manageable disaster than a wildfire. Individuals, businesses and emergency managers have some, albeit limited, time to put preparations in place to limit the impact. Hospitals and health-care providers also have little warning to prepare their patients and their facilities. 

PG&E is in effect, conducting a controlled burn on the people of California to prevent a larger disaster. But we should also not expect this to be merely a California problem.

As a nation, we have become increasingly dependent on electricity. This has wide ranging implications to the way we communicate, do business and even how we sustain ourselves. In many cases electricity is not just a matter of convenience. More than 60 percent of Americans are living with at least one chronic medical condition, and at least 40 percent live with two or more. For those on durable medical equipment, those who rely on dialysis or even access to reliable supplies of prescription drugs, electricity can be the difference between life and death.

Business are dependent on electricity to function for payment processing, telecommuting, managing inventories, etc. Globally, there are more than 433 billion non-cash financial transactions per year, with this number increasing every year. All of it requiring electricity.

Yet, despite all of this reliance on our electrical infrastructure, it remains a major vulnerability for the nation. The American Society of Civil Engineers gives the U.S. energy sector a D+ in their infrastructure report card. It cites that most of the nation’s electrical infrastructure was built in the 1950’s and 1960’s with a life expectancy of about 50 years, and that major investments are needed to build reliability and resilience.

Disaster preparedness and mitigation is a game of probability. How much time, effort and resources should be invested for an uncertain event is never an easy decision. In the short term, California’s power outages may indeed be the most appropriate way to mitigate against more devastating fires. But it is not without significant cost. And our failure to invest in more resilient infrastructure has led to this choice between a controlled disaster or taking a chance on a greater, potentially devastating, series of disasters.

This is not a choice we should have had to face. For too long we have been calculating our risks wrong, underestimating the dangers and underinvesting in resilience. As a result, we see the very infrastructure that is meant to support our safety and livelihood become the cause of its disruption.

Our infrastructure is now at a point where we need to shut off the power when the wind blows too hard. Ultimately, these power outages are a human-made disaster that are designed to prevent a larger human-made catastrophe. Both of which are avoidable.

Jeff Schlegelmilch is the deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. Follow him on twitter @jeffschlegel. 

Irwin Redlener, M.D. is the director at the NCDP and professor of Health Policy and Management at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter @IrwinRedlenerMD.

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