Moon of Alabama Brecht quote
August 28, 2011

Question Of The Day

My question of the day?

Why has a well off industrialized country an electricity system which breaks down for a million people due to a simple regular sized storm?

Posted by b on August 28, 2011 at 15:02 UTC | Permalink


B - rhetorical question, right? To get those Lurkers who just read & do not post? Get them out? I don't post when I have (almost always)nothing to add ...but ... this irritated me.

Because the whole US system is gradually degrading, although in interesting waves & spikes, not in a nice predictable smooth curve????

If you want to see a truly pessimistic view - go to --


Dat gonna make you skedale outta dat US place -- or eyeballs bleeeeeed.

and also see dis

Some really dark science fictiony type stuff from a Ph.D biologist, banned from entry into the US -- most of you readers should just skip this -- say ARRGH !!! --
nutty futuristic stuff --
well, the Russians initially thought his writing was too dark for them

So --
GO HERE - lots more - two persons who have left the US, one north, one south --- well --

moved to Canada

Moved to Mexico

Posted by: Northern Night Owl | Aug 28 2011 16:13 utc | 1

OK - for those who Do NOT want to give up and go down with the ship -- here is a truly wonderful story about one group of humans in need, going to die of starvation & cold -- and other humans coming to the rescue because it was The Right Thing To Do.

Posted by: Northern Night Owl | Aug 28 2011 16:24 utc | 2

A tiny earthquake emptied every federal office between Richmond and Philadelphia. The threat of a snowstorm does the same. The electric power company that serves DC regularly leaves tens of thousands without power on hot days, cold days, rainy days and mondays. Americans are completely cowed. They've become the spawn of the Stockholm Syndrome and the good German. Cowards, liars and sycophants.

Posted by: drip | Aug 28 2011 16:41 utc | 3

Sorry. I didn't answer the question. It's because the workers hate their jobs.

Posted by: drip | Aug 28 2011 16:43 utc | 4

For the same reason it allows major floods in a metropolitan area..Wayne,NJ and pays homage to politicians who use disasters for photo ops....

Posted by: Georgeg | Aug 28 2011 18:03 utc | 5

The Arab spring has "delighted al-Qaida" and caused "an intelligence disaster" for the US and Britain, the former head of the CIA unit in charge of pursuing Osama bin Laden has warned.

Posted by: Martin | Aug 28 2011 19:58 utc | 6

The men of mind are running off to Galt's Gulch and leaving the inept to try to figure how to keep everything running.

Oh, and thanks lurkers for coming out of the darkened corners of the failing system.

Posted by: juannie | Aug 28 2011 23:33 utc | 7

Must have been sarcasm on your part, b. Just in case it was not, I provide below a corrected version of your question:

Why has a well off-the-tracks, de-industrialized country an electricity system which breaks down for a million people due to a simple regular sized storm?

Posted by: Dr. Wellington Yueh | Aug 29 2011 0:08 utc | 8

Not sure I would call even the weakish Irene a "simple" storm, but to answer your question:

Most of the power grid in the US is carried on above-ground poles, unlike Europe which I believe is mostly underground.

A windstorm which knocks down trees onto the wires is the primary answer to your question.

Posted by: sleepy | Aug 29 2011 1:08 utc | 9

Why has a well off industrialized country an electricity system which breaks down for a million people due to a simple regular sized storm?

Whoa, dude, your Schadenfreude is showing through the holes in your logic again! And apparently I'm not the only one who has had difficulty following the gyrations of your argumentation lately. We'll get back to that ugly Schadenfreude later, but first let's get to work deconstructing this mess...

First off, it's not one million people. According to this article from Bloomberg: Hurricane Irene killed at least 18 people from Puerto Rico to Connecticut, caused an estimated $3 billion in damage and cut electric power to more than 4 million homes and businesses across the eastern U.S.

That might be a "simple regular sized storm" in Hamburg, but here on the East Coast of the United States it's a pretty big thing. Not super-duper mega-humongous, but pretty big, leaving in its wake a wide swath of devastation and suffering.

We're talking an area and population affected by Hurricane Irene (which means Peace by the way, for those who didn't know) roughly equal to that of Germany. According to the National Weather Service, in terms of windspeed and damage, we are looking at roughly a generational (20 year) event. I've been through about ten hurricanes in my life -- most while living in the Carribean -- and initially I didn't expect much, but I was surprised by the storm's intensity. Where I live, in New Bedford, on the south coast of Massachusetts, we got 20 hours of sustained tropical force winds, with gusts up to 70 mph. Fortunately, being east of the eye, we did not receive the torrential downpours which the western part of the state received.

For those not living on the East Coast, here are some brief highlights:

New York State: Torrential rains from Tropical Storm Irene forced hundreds in the Hudson Valley from their homes, caused widespread power outages, washed out 137 miles of the state's main highway (remember that fact because we will revisit it later) and swelled creeks and rivers to previously unseen levels. More than a foot of rain fell in parts of upstate New York, making many roads impassable — including the Thruway from Westchester County to Albany. (New York State is roughly 40% of the size of Germany and this is the road from the Capitol to the largest city in the country.) "This is the highest we've seen in years. Our flood stage starts at about 11 feet. We're approximately 23 feet right now," Shandaken Supervisor Robert Stanley said Sunday. "Immense areas are under water, areas I've never seen flooded are flooded right now. Dikes are breaking behind homes all over the place."

Vermont confronted some of the region’s most serious flooding. Parts of downtown Brattleboro, Bennington, and Montpelier were underwater last night.

Large parts of low-lying coastal Rhode Island were underwater. Providence Mayor Angel Taveras said least 125 streets in the city have downed trees or utility wires on them, and many of those streets are impassable. Also at the 5 p.m. news conference, at the Providence Emergency Management Headquarters, the mayor said that 16,240 households, or 27 percent, are still without power. Statewide, about 250,000 people were left without power.

In Massachusetts, A state emergency management spokesman said it could be week before power is fully restored. "Based on my experience you are talking several days to upwards of a week, worst-case scenario," said Scott MacLeod, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. The early flooding reports may be only the "tip of the iceberg," MacLeod said. Some parts of central and western Massachusetts were drenched with 5 to 8 inches of rain. Almost all the roadways in mountainous Western Massachusetts were closed due to flooding.

Fortunately, New Bedford, because of its importance as the largest fishing port on the East Coast, enjoys a reputation as a "safe harbor" thanks to its almost two-mile long unique stone and steel Hurricane Barrier. The harbor section has two 440-ton gates in the center that can be closed during strong tides or storms to protect the inner harbor. The western section protects the city from tidal surges in Clark's Cove. Built in the 1960's by the Army Corps of Engineers as a response to the Hurricane of '38, the Hurricane Barrier is the largest stone structure on the East Coast.

However, the south coast of Massachusetts and Rhode Island, a veritable fractal lover's maze of vulnerable low-lying points, salt marshes and bays, sustained much flood damage. In neighboring Westport, East Beach Road along the town's shoreline has been hit hard by Tropical Storm Irene. Poles and wires are down, the road is flooded, and waves are crashing across the roadway, which is also covered with debris, town officials said today. “The road is totally impassable. Right now it's underwater,” Fire Chief Brian R. Legendre said.

I think that it's clear that this wasn't just a "simple regular sized storm," and that the pattern thoughout New England, is far more damage from flash flooding than from wind.

It is also evident from damage reports that the "electricity system" did not "break down." A systemic breakdown means that the entire system for a region fails catastrophically and shuts down. This is what happened during the Northeast Blackout of 2003, which affected an estimated 10 million people in Ontario and 45 million people in eight U.S. states. That blackout, where a single event triggered a systemic cascade failure, was largely attributed to corporate shortcomings and system-wide problems -- a detailed discussion of which is beyond the scope of this post.

Instead, what we are seeing after Irene are a multitude of small regional or very local distruptions due to fallen power lines. The generation and heavy transmission systems have largely held up. Here, it hardly matters whether the posts carrying electric lines are brand-spanking new, or aged; the floods and falling trees were indiscriminate destructors.

It is possible that b is alluding to the fact that most electric lines in Europe are buried, while most lines in the US are not, implying the the US has an antiquated electrical infrastructure. The reasons for burying lines, and the design of electrical systems, are largely highly technical and beyond the scope of this post, with different calculations for Heavy-duty, Medium-duty, and local transmission lines, but the greater distances involved in North American transmission is one simple factor. In North America, as throughout the world, the trend is to bury more and more lines, especially in new construction.

If medium duty lines had been buried, would this of prevented many of the incidences of blackout? Possibly, but not necessarily. Remember the 137 miles of main State highway washed away in New York? Well, buried lines generally run along roadways right-of-way, and thus likely would have been washed away along with the roads. Additionally, buried lines take far longer (and cost far more) to repair when damaged, thus increasing the magnitude of the failure.

By asking why, b also appears to be implying that what the East Coast of the US is experiencing would not happen in a well-off industrialized country. So let's examine that premise next.

First, we will look at other force majeure, acts of nature in this case, in well-off industrialized countries and see if any man-made systems break down.

The North Sea flood of 1962 was a natural disaster affecting mainly the coastal regions of Germany and in particular the city of Hamburg in the night from 16 February to 17 February 1962. In total, the homes of about 60,000 people were destroyed, and the death toll amounted to 315 in Hamburg. A European windstorm with peak wind speeds of 200 km/h (about what hit the Carolinas from Irene) pushed water into the German Bight, leading to a water surge the dykes could not withstand. Breaches along the coast and the rivers Elbe and Weser led to widespread flooding of huge areas. In Hamburg, on the river Elbe, but a full 100 km away from the coast, the residential area of Wilhelmsburg was most affected. Due to telephone landline breakups, warnings could not be forwarded from coastal to hinterland emergency offices. Breakups at alarm siren lines and electricity lines had severe affectations to the warning system. Radio amateurs had to establish emergency operations to support emergency services in means of communication. 120 square kilometres or one sixth of the city of Hamburg were flooded, destroying 6000 buildings. Streets were unusable and railway operation was suspended.

In August 2002 a 100-year flood caused by over a week of continuous heavy rains ravaged Europe, killing dozens, dispossessing thousands, and causing damage of billions of euros in the Czech Republic, Austria, Germany, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania and Croatia. Prague received significant damage from what were deemed to be the worst floods to hit the capital in 200 years. In Germany, the flooding was significant in that it destroyed a lot of the work that had been done throughout the country since unification in 1990, especially the town of Grimma in the former East Germany. Dresden received significant damage when the Elbe River reached an all-time high of 9.4 meters. More than 30,000 people were evacuated from various neighborhoods throughout the city and some of the city's cultural landmarks were considered to be at risk. European leaders gathered in Berlin to discuss the effects of the floods and to create a better understanding of how to prevent such disaster in the future. This meeting garnered some criticism as Russia, which had suffered significant damage, was not invited.

Indeed, it is not surprising that we find weather events of this magnitude, that flooding is often the most damaging effect, and that various systems which had heretofore been presumed adequate do break down. After Fukushima, we should be far more humble when discussing "design criteria."

But perhaps b was referring specifically to power generation systems. Let's look at some other systemic failures.

The Quebec ice storm in Jan. 1998: The power to Montreal comes from hydro-electric installations about 1000 miles away and the power is transitted at something like 730kV. Of the five power lines coming into the city, four fell and fifth was almost literally hanging by a thread. They were designed for 40 mm of ice (about 1.6") and there was actually 100 mm (4"). The bottom line was that it was entirely unfeasible to bury them, but it was certainly feasible to strengthen the towers (which were what actually fell; the lines themselves held up).

A mere four inches of ice -- I believe that I have seen ice storms that bad -- and the well-being of three million people hung by a single thread. Yes, but that is antiquated North America, you say. Well, let's journey around the world.

France, Dec 1999: Overhead Lines. Lines damaged by falling trees. Also many pylons were not able to withstand very high wind velocities. Investigation into the incident recommended increasing pylon wind velocity resistance from 150/160 km/hour to 160/170 km/hour. Accord between EdF, RTE and the government also agreed to underground 25% of future HV lines (63kV-150kV). One should note that Irene was not a particularly strong hurricane, and yet everywhere along the Eastern shore from the Carolinas to New Jersey experienced winds strong enough to damage even the improved pylons. Also, information from France shows that there were 19 deaths due to contact with overhead lines in France in 2000 -- more than died from hurricane Irene.

Italy, September 2003. Almost all of the country's 57 million people were affected by a blackout. The problem was blamed on a series of failures on power lines from Switzerland and France due to heavy storms. The timing of the outage, early in the morning with most of the country asleep, ensured that the impacts were relatively minor. However, about 110 trains carrying more than 30,000 passengers were stranded and several hundred people were trapped in underground trains.

Germany, Nov 2005: Overhead lines. On 25 November, around 120,000 consumers in the Munster region in Germany suffered four days without electricity after around 50 pylons on the 220kV and 110kV network collapsed in the wake of a heavy snowstorm. Some local communities were without power for a week. A "a simple regular sized storm" and Germans are without power for a week!

Most interestingly, we come across this event:

On the night of November 4, 2006 in parts of Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Austria, Spain and Portugal over fifteen million households were left without power after a big cascading breakdown. The root cause was an overload triggered by the German electricity company E.ON switching off an electricity line over the river Ems to allow the cruise ship Norwegian Pearl to pass through safely. The impact of this disconnection on the security of the network had not been properly assessed, and resulted in the European transmission grid splitting into three independent parts for a period of two hours. The imbalance between generation and demand in each section resulted in the power outages for consumers.

In other words, fully three years after the Northeast cascade failure in North America, virtually the exact same event hit Germany and Europe with the same catastrophic effects to the European power grid. The German utility, and European regulators, had failed to learn anything from the North American experience and therefore made the exact same systemic mistakes in a system with the exact same design flaws. That doesn't speak very well for humans being able to handle technology, does it?

(Of course, some might argue that these events weren't human error at all, but purposive "deep state" drills, much like the 46 drills which took place on or near 9-11, the drill which coincidentally "went live" on 7-7, the drill right before the bombing in Oslo, etc. Again, it is simply beyond the scope of this post to disabuse the reader of this notion.)

By the way, one should note that the line in question was not buried. According to this document from a pro-burial group, Germany ranks last in the EU in "clarity" that it is important to bury their power lines.

Well, as Rumsfeld might say, that is so "Old Europe." For real progress, one must look to Asia.

Auckland, Feb 1998: Underground Cable. Contractor cut through a 110kV UGC and three others had failed due to aging cables (two of which were over 50 years old) and high ground temperatures. Power was out for up to 7 weeks. Hmm, even underground cables can fail.

And finally, in January and February 2008, China was hit by a series of snow storms that left millions of people without power in east-central and southern China. The storm knocked out electricity and water supplies and stranded millions of migrant workers trying to get home for the Chinese New Year. The Communist Party responded by mobilizing around two million military personnel to provide relief aid, help restore power, and get trains moving again. (A far better use of surplus labor than sending them into the meatgrinder of war.)

So, it seems that systemic catastrophic power generation failures are fairly common and spread fairly evenly around the globe. Gee, whoda thunk it!

As to the assertion that the US is a "well off (sic) industrialized country," well, even NPR has been reporting on the inequality of wealth lately, so it ain't any great secret anymore. The US is a center of world militarized power, with some individuals possessing wealth and power "beyond the dreams of avarice," and large percentages of the population (including yours truly) living essentially hand-to-mouth. Perhaps that is why so many people in the US are religious: they live on little more than faith.

As to why the country has been systematically de-industrialized -- well, that IS an interesting topic, and it goes much deeper than the "which world leader is friends with which other world leader this week" school of "thinking" which seems so popular lately. The theory that comes closest to my own thinking comes from Catherine Austin Fitts. I paricularly like the Jon Rappaport interview of her from 05/26/10 which may be found here.

Finally, let's get back to that Schadenfreude thing, shall we?

Schadenfreude, of course, means finding joy in another's suffering. It is a form of gloating. The opposite of Shadenfreude is compassion. One behavior divides, the other unites. With compassion, one thinks and speaks of the other as one would oneself. It is as if one were holding up a mirror and seeing oneself reflected back. The German word for mirror, I believe, is Speigel. Of course the Speigel media empire is anything but a mirror; it reflects the values and views of the German elite.

Remember the Northeast Blackout of 2003? Spiegel TV was quick to comment upon it. Again, remember that Germany made the identical mistakes to the identical effect three years later. Also, remember from above that Germany had another blackout in 2005 -- two major "breakdowns" in less than a year.

Perhaps this blog entry from December 2005 (before the second breakdown) holds up a mirror to b's Schadenfreude:

Power Outages Here and There

Remember the German media's reaction to a power outage in the U.S. in September 2003? SPIEGEL TV was clearly taking pleasure in the misfortunes of Americans:

"BLACKOUT IN AMERICA - The dazed world power was plunged into chaos by the largest blackout in the super power's history: Cities in the dark, planes on the ground, and a nation marching single-file like geese through the darkness. The land of limitless opportunity was shut off by a couple of exploded fuses. A world power between perception and reality - SPIEGEL TV with observations from a country whose lights have gone out."

Last week the lights literally had gone out in parts of Germany, with hundreds of thousands of Germans without electricity for days. And SPIEGEL's reporting - and that of the rest of the German media - was full of sympathy with the poor folks who had to sit in the dark and the cold.

Well, how about some unbiased SPIEGEL TV reporting on the German power outage? Could read like this:

"BLACKOUT IN GERMANY - The dazed European power was plunged into chaos by the largest blackout in the economic super power's recent history: Cities in the dark, planes on the ground, and a nation marching single-file like geese through the darkness. The land of social justice was shut off by a couple of inches of snow. A European power between perception and reality - SPIEGEL TV with observations from a country whose lights have gone out."

Note: I do not agree with the general views of the blog I quote from. I only find the quote instructive in this case.

Note #2: I am not arguing here that the US's infrastructure is not becoming decrepit and in serious need of upgrade. I am merely speaking to the event in question, and the comment about it.

P.S. Several days after my Fukushima post, I had a very serious accident and am only now getting back on my feet. So, no follow up with that post.

Posted by: Malooga | Aug 29 2011 10:19 utc | 10

Hi Malooga.

Sorry to hear about your accident, wish you health and happiness.

It is great to read your voice again!

As for the aftermath of Irene, thanks for the information. I have been away for a few days and out of touch, so I have a better idea of what's been facing my friends and relatives on the East Coast.

It will be interesting to see if our host decides to engage in this discussion ...

Posted by: jonku | Aug 29 2011 19:07 utc | 11

Thanks Malooga!

Posted by: beq | Aug 29 2011 23:25 utc | 12

Malooga - that is a most excellent post and such a good reminder for us all how vulnerable citizens in our "advanced" societies all are due to the vagaries of corporate and political power and decision-making combined with nature's inevitable events.

Hope you are recovering now and will post more at MoA!

Posted by: Maxcrat | Aug 30 2011 2:29 utc | 13

Everything Malooga said may be true, but it doesn't preclude the fact that the event was hyped by the MSM beyond the pale. I didn't pay attention, and I don't intend to start.

Posted by: Morocco Bama | Aug 30 2011 13:07 utc | 14

Nice to have your comments again Malooga, hope your recovery is total and lasting.

Posted by: ben | Aug 30 2011 14:22 utc | 15

although I think Malooga's post is quite good, he seems a bit defensive about the whole thing. there was a very strong windstorm here in Germany a couple of years back causing deaths and much damage. granted some households lost electricity but nothing of the scale in the US.

it may be true that most of Europe is much more densely populated than many parts of the US and burying cable becomes economically feasible. there may be other reasons why the Europeans seem to have far fewer outages than we do in the US. but I think b's question is a valid one. for a country that can piss away 12 billion dollars a month on wars of choice for almost 10 years now, it seems it could also afford to harden its own infrastructure.

why we choose not to is for me, the question.

Posted by: dan of steele | Aug 30 2011 15:51 utc | 16

Update from Northern NJ Suboonia: Flooding about 3 miles from my house which I learned about as I tried to go to a Home Depot (my closest hardware store) and got stuck in a massive traffic jam due to major road closures. This flooding and road closure barely made the news at all...until the rescue of people from a motel where they'd taken refuge from threats of floods in Queens, NYC.

The heavy flooding of the Rockaway River led to closure of State Hwy 46, a major east-west traffic route in northern NJ. More Irene Irony--Many people who had been told to evacuate from Queens shoreline flood zones came out to the Holiday Inn just off Interestate-80 westbound. The Holiday Inn was flooded and on late Monday, Tuesday they were finally rescued (if the TV brief news report had the timeline correct).

Going west of where I live, about 4 miles, Interstate-287 southbound had one lane completely washed away by the Rockaway River and the other three lanes were undermined and cracked from the erosion; northbound was still sound apparently. What I saw on TV was a large V running under the highway pavement filled with rushing brown water frothed to whitewater, which, on Tuesday was being filled in with truck after truck after truck after truck of small boulders and smaller fill of broken up stones. The river there is normally so small it's hardly noticeable when driving at highway speeds.

I finally realized why there were so many helicopters flying around my area!

To the south of me, under a mile, a formerly flood-prone area of my town which has been well protected for over a decade by a huge flood containment project, high berms topped and strengthened by corrugated metal walls, was, with this flood, once again flooded. As of yesterday, it had gone down by two of the three to five blocks covered when the flood began.

Today, people who had evacuated from other flooded areas were being rescued from motels in Lawrenceville, Mercer County, NJ. There were many people there with their pets as this motel would accept pets--all were being rescued on inflatable boats and flat-bottomed boats. Poor people. Poor animals.

I'm gathering that the Passaic has finally crested, at least in the Patterson area. (Patterson falls are spectacular now, but accessible only on foot, per the TV people.)

These floods are higher than what people have seen in living memory, and higher by several feet. People are flooded who never expected to see flood waters. So most of these folks do not have flood insurance, since they were not in the marked flood zones. And there were many in the flood zones, which had not flooded in decades, who did not have flood insurance.

(Question: Can people get flood insurance for areas not labeled "flood zones"?)

I had brought the cat carrier up from the basement on Saturday, in case a tree came down on my house and I'd have to leave with my dearly beloved dying boy cat. I went to sleep fearing that if there was such a crash, he, being, like, ya know, catlike, would hide under something where I wouldn't be able to find him.... And if my big oak hit the house, it would hit...the end of the kitchen and the master bedroom. So glad nothing like that happened. And, on a lesser but still important level of storm effects, that I did not lose electricity.

It was also alarming that people were experiencing bad flooding and I knew nothing about it. Could I have helped? Probably not, but, still, that people were in trouble with no way of knowing...kinda encapsulates the disconnected lives in suboonia.

Oh, my favorite video of NJ flooding. I think the video of the NJ National Guard 5-ton trucks continuing to drive with the windshield almost entirely covered with brown water has gone viral, but it is amazing. These are new trucks designed to drive through deep water. However, the Guardsmen did not know the depth of the water and had to abandon the trucks when they began to float. Pretty impressive technology, actually. Today, it was reported no disciplinary action will be taken against the Guardsmen. (Would reverse have worked? I mean, before the floating...?)

When I moved to Northern NJ suboonia, I was amazed at how often the power went out. It has actually been much less in recent years, but until about 6 years ago, my next door neighbor, running off a different sub-station, would lose her power frequently. We had a long extension cord set up so she could at least have some light and a fan going in hot weather. As she was in her 80's and very frail, I had to be home to connect the cord we left rolled up in her kitchen. She would drop it down and I would connect it to my electricity. Shortly before she died, the electric company filnally fixed that substation, so she had about 3 years of more stable electricity.

Posted by: jawbone | Aug 31 2011 18:56 utc | 17

Thanks jawbone. Very interesting and a quite dramatic situation.

The MSM news does not reflect that. It was hoping for some cat 5 in New York City it seems.

Posted by: b | Sep 1 2011 17:37 utc | 18

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