As my husband and I dropped off my girls for their first day of school this morning (my youngest started kindergarten…so I am having an emotional day–full disclosure), I couldn’t help but think about kids in Houston who can’t go to school because school is underwater. That led me to think about places where kids never have the opportunity to go to school or even have electricity. Without minimizing in any way the loss of life, devastation and months (possibly years) of rebuilding in Houston, we are nonetheless incredibly blessed to live in a country of prosperity such that we can rebuild and we can help others in need by donating money, contributing food and clothing, and helping directly by donating our time (a commodity that will be needed far into the future in Houston, I’m sure).
On a personal note, I have many cousins who live in Houston, and my grandmother lived there from the time I was born until she died, so I visited often and know of the pride and grit underlying their friendly Texas charm. Of the cousins about which I’ve heard reports, they are all okay, but have, in some cases, lost their homes, cars, etc. I fear my grandmother’s old house, on Glen Oaks, in The Heights section of Houston, was flooded – no definitive word yet. But the point, the point, is that they are alive and will rebuild–whether literally or figuratively.
I am heartened to see the difference in how this disaster has been managed, at least to date, versus the incompetence and chaos displayed at all levels of government after Hurricane Katrina. I have also seen an increased emphasis on mutual aid among electric utilities and better cross-sector coordination between electric and oil/gas as well as communications. While the electric sector has long had mutual aid arrangements, particularly at the regional level, the sector has steadily been working to expand and solidify not only the worker aid, but spare equipment availability, emergency communications management, etc.
A lot of this increased cross-sector and intra-sector coordination has been evolving since 9/11, and some would say slightly before that, as the industry prepared to respond to any unintended consequences of Y2K. But after 9/11, the Bush Administration created a structure whereby the 16 critical infrastructure sectors (energy is one — electricity is a subsector as is oil/gas) could interface with the federal government on matters of national security without having to publicize such interactions. Clearly, 9/11 proved the need to prepare for attacks on infrastructure owned, not by the federal government primarily, but by private, state, and local entities. These “sector coordinating councils,” as they are called, have been organized by each sector in diverse ways. Initially, the Electric Subsector Coordinating Council (ESCC) included a handful of utility CEOs interacting with an assistant secretary at the Department of Energy on a quarterly basis. While somewhat helpful to that point, the need for broader level of CEO interaction with the highest levels of government representatives was highlighted in a 2010 report by the National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC), which was in turn requested in a letter to then-President Barack Obama by the Edison Electric Institute, the American Public Power Association, and the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. The disaster that resulted in the Fukushima-Daichi nuclear accident further solidified the need for high levels of government coordination and another letter was sent in 2011 that included the Nuclear Energy Institute. A subsequent response and meeting between a broad swath of electric and nuclear trade association CEOs, utility CEOs, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation and cabinet-level secretaries, initiated a reorganization of the ESCC. The 2012 Superstorm Sandy disaster solidified the need for high levels of interaction between the electric sector and all levels of government as does the evolving and expanding cybersecurity threat.
In 2017, this ESCC/federal government partnership is continuing under the Trump Administration. As an invited guest to the ESCC, I can report that ESCC involvement during the Hurricane Harvey response has resulted in expedited levels of mutual aid by minimizing red tape and effectuating a higher level of situational awareness. In the case of Harvey, flooding is precluding the re-powering of some areas and, since water and electricity do not mix, the partnership between electric utility workers, first responders, and building/home owners is that much more crucial to avoid unintended electrification and potential loss of life. As the efforts on the ground continue, I want to thank the utility workers who are working day and night to respond — rebuilding Houston substation by substation and utility pole by utility pole.
The bottom line is that safety of people and workers is the sectors’ first priority and the rebuilding can only be done properly with that in mind. Until we meet again…