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Lawmakers push emergency planning for power grid attack

Lawmakers push emergency planning for power grid attack
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Lawmakers pressed federal officials Thursday over their emergency plans in the event of a cyber or physical attack on the nation's electrical grid.

At a hearing of the House Transportation Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management, lawmakers expressed concerns the government is not prepared to handle the aftermath. 

“Virtually all critical infrastructure is dependent upon the electrical grid, particularly lifeline sectors, telecommunications, transportation, water, and financial services,” said Chairman Lou BarlettaLouis (Lou) James Barletta10 bellwether counties that could signal where the election is headed Bottom Line Ex-GOP congressman to lead group to protect Italian products from tariffs MORE (R-Pa.).  

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"If the goal of the bad guys is to collapse the U.S. economic system, they are going to cut off the power," he added. "Our national security, public safety, economic competitiveness and personal privacy is at risk."

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said a coordinated physical and cyber attack could be almost as devastating to communities as a massive earthquake or tsunami. 

The hearing comes as fears grow about a crippling attack on the nation's grid. The FBI has also started to warn power companies about potential threats, according to a report last week.

A historic cyberattack on a Ukrainian power company in December, which that country blamed on Russia, led to a massive blackout.

Lawmakers said that any emergency plans should account for cyber incidents.

Officials at the hearing said they were taking the issue seriously, but also shared some of the difficulties with preparing for the fallout from a massive attack on the grid.

Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Craig Fugate said they have learned a great deal from responding to natural disasters about the need to have long-term resources in an area.

"A lot of the lessons have been learned by natural hazards. The question with cyber is how widespread and how many jurisdictions will simultaneously be impacted," he said of a blackout.

State and local officials are often ready to handle short-term or local outages, but more must be done to prepare for long-term or wider blackouts.

Fugate said the situation would grow more complicated the longer the power is out.

"The longer you have power disruptions, the more you have cascading effects from everything to not being able to get to retail or grocery stores or gasoline distribution."

Witnesses told the committee that emergency planning begins with local utilities on the scene.

“Should any threat or emergency exceed the capability of any local or private sector resources, then the federal government and the electric sector will engage in coordinating a response to this type of crisis,” said Patricia Hoffman, assistant secretary of the Energy Department's Office of Electricity Delivery & Energy Reliability. 

Fugate also said that in massive blackout from a cyberattack, FEMA would operate on the state level to communicate with citizens.

"Governors and their teams are going to be the best to give information at the local level. Our job on the federal side is to provide the back up and tools required," he said.  

But some lawmakers, including Barletta, were concerned that agencies have not connected the dots all the way to the local government. 

Caitlin Durkovich, from the Department of Homeland Security, tried to assure the lawmakers that the administration is taking the threat seriously.

"Protecting the electrical grid is a top priority for this administration," she said.