Wednesday, September 3, 2014




Namazu, the giant Japanese catfish, former demigod turned master coastal environmental analysts continues his discussion on applying the lesson of  compartmentalization from naval architecture to disaster preparedness and recovery.

In Part 1 we looked at what individual households could do to be more prepared for power outages in terms of maintaining heating, cooling, cooking capacities and lighting. We also looked at how poorly a lot of modern home design deals with the distinct probability of periodic and long power outages. We noted that the wide spread power outages cause the most misery to the most people and drain manpower and funds from the efforts to rescue and recover those relatively small groups and areas that have suffered widespread total destruction of homes . We have just a few more notes on what individual households can do to limit the dangers and discomforts of wide spread and prolonged power failure. Then in the rest of part 2 we will explore neighborhood and city and county approaches, and what utility companies need to do and how communities can force them to do it.

 The Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. agency that seems to be in charge of insuring that our borders remain porous, citizen travel remains inconvenient  and disaster response inadequate and overly complex and expensive generally recommends that every household keep about a three day water supply on hand. That's probably not enough and probably a real challenge of storage for some smaller homes. Lets take a more detailed look at your water needs. people need to drink two pints of water a day to survive. If you go  totally without water, about three days is your total survival time on average; while many humans can go as much as 15 days without eating. Drinking water is critical. Katrina and the Frakenstorm Sandy both illustrate that in the first 72 hours after a major damaging weather event government response on all levels is in the rescue mode in the areas of greatest destruction. Very often the great majority of people left in intact, but utility less housing are  pretty much left on their own for the first 72 hours. Generally response organizations will try to get into areas of intact housing with inoperative utilities within 72 hours even , as was the case in both Katrina and Sandy the rescue phase elsewhere is incomplete. It is concern over drinking water that drives this disaster response deadline. Unfortunately disaster response units don't always make the the deadline in every part of a large disaster area. A three day supply of water is a real minimum. And what do we mean by a "supply", enough to drink only? What about sanitary needs?  If you want to be able at least get in a sponge bath and do some cooking, assuming that you have the means, you have to up the water supply from two pints per person per day to about a gallon per person per day. But then you have to consider other sanitary needs like flushing. Thankfully the usual problem is that the water supply isn't unavailable, it is that the water isn't suitable to drink, or possibly is drinkable if first boiled and boiling is difficult without power. But water unsuitable for drinking is rarely unsuitable for flushing. Still at times water is completely cut off. A single flush may require three gallons of water. Your storage problems for this huge water need would be greatly reduced if you eliminate the need entirely by having at least one composting or chemical potty available. Inexpensive portable chemical commodes are sold for small boat use in a wide variety of stores. Consider one for the house. Consider also a camp stove as an emergency back up cooking utility but only if you have an outdoor space to use it in never use these inside the home. 

Image Credit: Way of Nature Corporation / Public Domain
An example of a home built composting Toilet click on the link below for a web site that tells you how to build one

 So assuming that you have made some provision for heat, lights, forced air ventilation, cooking, and water the last thing you have to do to compartmentalize your home from utility grid failure is have a stock of non perishable food on hand. Canned and dried is the by word for this preparation. How much you really need has nothing to do with FEMA estimates and recommendations. After Katrina many areas had no retail grocery operations for more than a month after the storm. The National Guard distributed dried field rations but you had to have water and a means of boiling it unless you wanted to dine on  meat paddies with the taste and texture of a hockey puck.  When it comes to home emergency food , water, lighting, heat, ventilation, and lighting capacities FEMA suggested guides don't seem to anticipate the sheer length of time it seems to take of late to restore utilities over broad areas of destruction. With the utility grid vulnerable and homes now so dependent on the utility grid, weather disasters are going to continue to seem unprecedented unil we harden and compartmentalize the utility grids. Is the weather really that much worse and destructive than it has been in North American human history since colonial times? We'll address that in a later post. But time off the grid in the wake of even minor weather disasters seems to be increasing. Individuals need to face that issue and individually prepare. The government is too inept to do much about it and the utility companies are conflicted in dealing with it.

 So what can communities do? Neighborhoods can get together and fund those block generating stations for recharging cell phone and computer batteries. Cities and counties can  build some larger battery recharging stations. Cities and counties can amend building codes to incorporate battery charging stations into new multi- family housing developments. Cities counties and states can regulate utility companies to help provide more of such stations as part and parcel of their disaster response. With adequate battery charging available most house holds can stay in touch with loved ones out of the area by cell phone. Many people will be able to access their funds by wireless computer. People are getting into wireless communications and computing on their own in droves. We don''t need government to encourage it. But the weak points of the wireless net works in the event of wide spread disaster are battery power and antenna access. We discussed how neighborhoods, local governments and utility companies can act to insure adequate and almost immediate battery charging after a disaster in neighborhoods where there is a utility outage but homes are structurally intact for the most part. Loss of cell towers could be quickly dealt with by the use of aerostat supported temporary antenna systems. Aerostats are small blimp like tethered balloons that the military uses to carry antennas and sensors aloft. Every cell phone provider offering nation wide service should be required as part of its FCC licensing to have readily available at least  one aerostat temporary tower replacement per major region of the country. FEMA should maintain some additional units under agreement with cell service providers that they will maintain the aerostat deployable antennas and related gear.   

 Much of the power outages experienced today are the result of contact between tree branches and above ground power lines. Much of America's pole mounted electrical distribution system needs to be put under ground. Where that is not feasible due to high water tables aerial right of ways need to be extensively maintained free of probable tree branch contact. Both utility burial and enhanced right of way maintenance cut into profits.

 Utility companies exist to earn profits to return to investors. One way to get  utility management to listen to utility customers is for the customers to become active and vocal stock owners. Neighborhood civic associations and condo owner associations should purchase stock in the local utility provider(s). Knowledgeable representative should be appointed to visit and get to know the local utility executives and to attend all stock owner meetings. No civic association type stock owners should ever vote by proxy.  Utility burial and enhanced right of way maintenance are forms of hardening the system. These are similar to the concept of armor belts in war ship hulls that simply make it harder for munitions to penetrate. If they do penetrate they detonate inside a watertight compartment but unless the munition has the power to buckle most of the most critical watertight bulkheads this compartmentalization saves the day. Utilities can add to the compartmentalization that individual home owners and tenants, neighborhood associations, and local governments can provide through the idea of local battery charging stations by building more compartmentalization features into the grid such as more by pass systems, some local emergency generating capacity, and locally stored in hardened facilities key parts. Hardening and compartmentalizing such utility grids will be expensive. But the sooner the utility companies make a start the cheaper it will be. The sooner individuals and neighborhoods, counties and cities do what they can do, the less people will suffer while waiting for the new hardened and compartmentalized system to emerge.

 Is the weather really that much worse than it was  in first half of the twentieth century? Or during the first half century of electrification did the nation benefit from a legacy system of housing that was originally designed and built before there was a utility grid and whose designs persisted for a few decades after the grid emerged? Shouldn't we start to examine building codes and city development plans in light of the fact that the grid system of utility distribution is inherently vulnerable? Who do we want to do this? The federal government has proved itself pretty inept and unresponsive to local needs. The basic principals of compartmentalization point to this as a matter for local governments, utilities, and utility consumer organizations. Have Americans  become so used to the national nanny state that they  are incapable of taking care of this at the level where it should be resolved? Americans  as a catfish witness to 3,000 years of history I can tell you that your founding fathers would have resolved this at the county government level. Meanwhile individuals can still isolate their home from many of the ills that utility grid failure and slow repair impose. My Cajun cousin Jack says "Why don't ya'll start compartmentalizing and hardening now? Do you think you've seen the last wiggle of the old catfish already?"  Not if you know Jack!
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