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How to prepare for a potential Syrian counterattack on the U.S. Power Grid

Rob Enderle | Sept. 9, 2013
It isn't yet time to stock up on canned beans and bottled water, but a potential conflict with Syria--which hasn't been shy about attacking vulnerable U.S. infrastructure--should have your organization reviewing its disaster-preparedness plans.

Earlier this week, on Wall Street Journal This Morning, I shared my increasing concern that we aren't taking seriously the Syrian cyberattack and the possibility of a Syrian military warning shot against U.S. infrastructure.

The U.S. power grid is vulnerable, held together by little more than a prayer and bailing wire. Even if Syria doesn't strike, a broad failure is inevitable. It's therefore prudent to begin testing your short- and long-term power outage contingency plans.

Remember, a broad outage doesn't just mean failover, as it could extend to failover sites. This means your current mitigation and disaster recovery planning may be inadequate for what might end up being a near-nationwide outage.

Even if you don't buy into the Syrian cyber counterattack risk, the likelihood of a massive outage is still great enough to test your firm's ability to survive if much of the power and telecom grid suddenly fails and remains down for weeks or even months. Disaster preparedness assessments are a prudent exercise, after all, and the Japanese tsunami of 2011 showed that the U.S. isn't the only wealthy nation with fragile infrastructure issues.

Power Grid Failure Would Be Catastrophic
Massive failures typically result from a massive weather event. You don't just lose power; if the power outage goes on for a day or more, you eventually lose telecommunications, water and even gas supplies (which often fuel emergency generators). A cascading failure would cause many transformers to catastrophically fail, which is a nice way of saying "explode." Recovery time could easily move from days to months; existing transformer reserves would be inadequate, and the in-country manufacture of new transformers would paradoxically need to wait until those factories could be brought back online.

Most generating facilities - especially hydroelectric - would come back relatively quickly. If distribution is catastrophically destroyed, though, getting that power to your primary or backup sights would be problematic. You could find your in-country facilities down for the count.

Corporate buildings would hardly be the only facilities affected; employees would suddenly face a world where food, water and gas supplies were unavailable for extended periods. Many would have no choice but to relocate, as extended families, to areas that were secure and had sufficient supplies.

While a downed power grid would largely leave homes intact - unlike New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina - contacting employees and their families and coordinating their movement would fail. Yes, most of today's homes use cable modems for phone service, but those must be plugged in and would be unreliable. And yes, wireless phones and cell towers would work in a power outage, offering organizations a way to deliver rally points and other critical information, but cell towers' backup power supplies only last several hours - as do the typical cell phone batteries.


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