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Network Damage After Sandy Through The Eyes of A Disaster Forensics Expert

Alexis Kwasinski takes IEEE Spectrum on a tour of the strike zone

5 min read
Network Damage After Sandy Through The Eyes of A Disaster Forensics Expert

It’s been about two weeks now since “Superstorm” Sandy whipped through the eastern United States, flooding beachfronts and low-lying communities and blowing hurricane-force winds from Virginia to Massachusetts. As clean-up crews continue to clear debris and power is restored to the last of the 8.5 million people who lost it, there will no doubt emerge many lessons on how engineers can better protect critical infrastructure if and when the next storm strikes. In Sandy's early aftermath, I went hunting for some of those lessons.

On the first Saturday after the storm, I met up with Alexis Kwasinski in Manhattan to do a bit of what he calls “disaster forensics.” Kwasinksi, who is an assistant professor of electrical engineering at the University of Texas, had come to the area to do an on-the-ground assessment of damage to communications and power infrastructure, which he has done for most major disasters since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. His surveys, though far from comprehensive, often reveal weaknesses or design flaws that official outage reports might miss.

I met Kwasinski around mid-day at 14th Street near the East River bank, where on Monday night, a massive explosion at an electrical substation had knocked out power to most of the island’s lower half. He wore jeans, a baseball cap, and an orange utility vest. He carried a point-and-shoot camera, which he rarely set down, even while driving.

“You need to document everything,” he said. “If it’s not in the photos, it’s not there.”

[Utility crews address damage after a massive explosion at the 14th Street substation in lower Manhattan. Credit: Alexis Kwasinski]

By the time I caught up with Kwasinski, he had already visited two other sites in lower Manhattan—both central telecommunications offices owned by Verizon, which had flooded during the surge. The offices still had no grid power, and the flooding had very likely also taken their back-up generators out of commission. Kwasinski suspected that the surge had also damaged any copper telecom cables passing through the buildings. Normally, these cables are kept pressurized to prevent water from seeping in and corroding the wires. “But if you don’t have power, you can’t pressurize,” Kwasinski explained. Workers at one office, he said, had wheeled in a couple emergency mobile generators, but by the time they arrived, the damage would have already been done. If the corroded cables aren’t properly replaced, he added, “they’re going have a high failure rate in the future.”

[Seawater is pumped from a Verizon central telecom office in lower Manhattan. Credit: Alexis Kwasinski]

On 14th Street, Kwasinski snapped a few more photos of the lifeless substation. Then we hopped into his black rental SUV, which he’d loaded with water bottles, snacks, and full gasoline canisters. The storm had disrupted the gasoline supply chain, and the shortage meant that refueling might be a challenge.

In the drivers’ seat, Kwasinski riffled through loose-leaf printouts from Google Maps pinpointing the locations of other central telecom offices he suspected might have suffered damage. The next stop, he decided, would be the Rockaway Peninsula—a tail-like strip of day parks and beach homes that had been all but washed away by the storm surge.

He wove through the streets of Manhattan and the neighboring boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, snapping photos of dead streetlights, a few downed cables, and many seemingly unscarred but powerless curbside cabinets housing telephone and cable TV equipment. He also photographed dozens of cell towers perched on the tops of buildings. Many were obviously without grid power, and their backup batteries had probably run out days ago.

A few of the roof-top cell sites we passed were connected to mobile generators humming on the sidewalks. But the vast majority remained without back-up power. “The problem is how you get power up there if the building doesn’t have power,” Kwasinski said. Simply getting access to the building, he explained, can be a big hurdle.

Besides the widespread power outages, though, there seemed to be little damage.

Until we arrived at the Rockaways.

The first thing that struck me was the sand. Whipped up off the beaches by the storm, it now coated the streets. Bulldozers were scraping it onto the sidewalk in piles three meters high.

There were felled street lamps and overturned cars. A submerged powerboat had come to rest on the median of the main throughway. Residents were depositing the waterlogged contents of their homes—clothes, toys, furniture—out on the sidewalks.

Power was out across the peninsula and cell service was spotty. Yet despite the massive outages, Kwasinski pointed out, strangely no utility poles seemed to be down or damaged.

As Kwaskinski had suspected, the central telecom office on the peninsula had flooded. When we got there, hard-hatted workers were busy pumping out seawater from the red-bricked former telephone switching station. Kwasinski photographed the building from all sides, noting the lack of windows on the first few floors. The only place the water—which rose only three or four feet—could have gotten in was through the front door.

“This building shouldn’t be vulnerable,” he said, shaking his head. “But it's got a regular door. Why would you have a regular door? In Japan, all the central offices have watertight doors, like on submarines. How much does it cost to build a watertight door? Not much.”

A watertight door may be a simple fix, Kwasinski said, but it would have made a huge difference. In fact, he added, probably none of the telecom offices would have flooded if they’d had better doors.

That evening, after I’d left him, Kwasinski made his way to Staten Island. And on Sunday, he toured the New Jersey coast, although he couldn’t get to many of the most devastated areas, he told me later, because roads were still closed. He didn’t have much more network damage to report other than power outages. He thought we’d probably seen the worst of it in Manhattan and in the Rockaways.

[An explosion at a power substation on Rockaway Peninsula charred the cabinets housing switching equipment. Credit: Alexis Kwasinski]

Now back in Texas, Kwasinski still has to go through the hundreds of photos he took on the trip, synthesize his data, compare it to public reports, and follow up with engineers he knows at Verizon and other telecom operators. But I wondered if he had walked away from the weekend with any obvious lessons.

The lack of watertight doors, he reminded me, was an obvious one. Also, it seemed to him that unlike in most other disaster areas he’s visited, underground infrastructure in this case seemed to fair worse than lines and equipment kept above ground—probably, in New York City at least, because the surges from Sandy were more damaging than its winds.

As with most disasters, he concluded, the biggest problem was power outages, which have ripple effects in other utilities, particularly telecommunications. He believes that if critical infrastructure such as street lights, cell sites, and curbside telecom cabinets could be made less dependent on the grid, it would be much more robust in the face of disaster. One solution may be to encourage power companies to deploy standards that allow cell sites, homes and other independent structures to safely disconnect from the grid and still use local sources of energy, such as microgrids, solar panels, or wind turbines.

[Current standards prevent utility poles from safely using solar panels when disconnected from the grid during a blackouthence the unlit street lights. Credit: Alexis Kwasinski]

Finally, Kwasinski said there was one last thing he had expected to see in Sandy’s wake but never did:

“In every disaster area there is always a damaged McDonald’s sign."


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