Studying hurricanes to improve earthquake preparedness


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – Superstorm Sandy was epic by many measures, but one of the biggest take-aways may be that it revealed significant weaknesses in American critical infrastructure planning. According to one leading expert, Sandy forced us to confront the reality that our society runs on a web of services which depend on each other for normal operation. What happens to public transportation if communication technology fails? How is healthcare impacted during a crisis if the energy sector sustains a significant or prolonged failure? These questions speak to the compounding effect of cascading failures caused by an infrastructure underpinned by a network of complex connections.

“America was historically a resilient society until around WWII, when we began to focus so much on risk mitigation that we started to lose our ability to respond and recover when our mitigation measures fell short,” says Dr. Stephen Flynn, professor of political science and director of the Global Resilience Institute at Northeastern University. “We became so focused on trying to prevent bad things from happening that we lost sight of how important it is become well-prepared for coping with disasters and attacks.”

Through support from the Critical Infrastructure Resilience Institute, a Department of Homeland Security Center of Excellence led by the University of Illinois, Flynn’s research team explored lessons from the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy to design a resilience framework that focuses on recovery as much as it does mitigation. The resilience framework is a template to guide public officials and infrastructure owners and operators on how to organize themselves to protect lifeline infrastructure assets by taking action prior to a major disaster.

As Flynn notes, resilience is more than protection—it is the ability to fail gracefully and leverage a built-in capacity to self-heal in a manner that is both timely and resource efficient. This represents a significant shift in engineering thinking. Rather that troubleshooting attacks and failures and treating them as distinct incidents, resilience engineering designs equipment, environments, and processes for the reality that failure is inevitable, which encourages designers to build systems that are nimble and better able to manage infrastructure interdependencies.

The first phase of Flynn’s research project used a ‘what-if’ case study approach to bring together stakeholders to map out what might happen to the energy and transportation sectors if a Sandy-like storm hit the Boston metro area, one of the most densely populated areas in the U.S. Because Boston was so near to ground zero for Sandy, it was relatively easy to get key players to the table.

The second phase of this project will test a new resilience framework that resulted from phase one efforts. The goal is to determine how meaningfully it can be applied in situations where the threat is theoretical—but likely—and where it will impact multiple infrastructure sectors. Flynn’s team selected Seattle as the testing ground to assess the applicability and scalability of what they learned from both Superstorm Sandy and their effort to organize Boston stakeholders around a similar hurricane risk. Seattle is a great test case for the framework because the potential for a significant earthquake event is high, the quake would come with little advanced warning, and the metro region is similarly dependent on several interconnected lifeline infrastructure systems, such as transportation and energy.

Historically speaking, these types of problems aren’t well served by national-level solutions because there are very few critical infrastructure systems that have a single national-level jurisdiction or regulating body and none that exercise control over more than one sector to manage the interdependency issue. According to Flynn, a better approach is to develop solutions at the regional level and identify what can be translated to other regions. While this is a more efficient use of resources, it is inevitable that some elements of these solutions won’t make sense when applied in new environments so they’ll need to be adapted.

“Our experience suggests that roughly 70 percent of the solutions will have common elements across regions with the remaining 30 percent tailored to the unique attributes of the region,” says Flynn. “Our project has identified ways to address critical infrastructure interdependencies within the metro-Boston region. The next step will take those findings to the metro-Seattle region to determine if 70 percent of the solutions are translatable to other metro-regions, as we expect them to be.”

One of the challenges in resilience planning is overcoming the false perception that each disaster, failure, or attack is so unique that lessons learned elsewhere don’t apply. While geographic regions and individual industries do have unique characteristics, the resilience framework seeks to build an appropriate mindset rather than to replicate exact systems.

By using a resilience-centric approach, the framework will safeguard critical infrastructure sectors against the risk of cascading failures that could be caused by a failure or attack in any single sector. This approach allows communities to come together and identify the infrastructure elements that are truly critical to the functioning of their region. Once identified, a cross-functional team of local stakeholders can use the resilience framework to develop safeguarding strategies and to calibrate recovery priorities when disruptions happen.

“This framework provides the mechanisms for conversation and decision-making that are needed to embed resilience into our systems and networks,” says CIRI Director David Nicol, the Franklin W. Woeltge Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Illinois. “One of CIRI’s key research missions is to create roadmaps that help us better navigate the dependencies and interdependencies of American infrastructure. This project and the resulting framework increase our ability to quickly respond to and recover from failures while minimizing the resource expenditure needed to get systems and processes back online.”

One of the keys to Flynn’s framework is identifying the people and entities that need to have a seat at the table—and then getting them to the join the conversation. Flynn will convene a series of meetings in Seattle over the next several months to assemble a stakeholder team. Once that is accomplished, researchers will work with the local team to apply the new framework, assess the transference of previous protocols, and make refinements to enhance its viability in other regions.