It Can’t Happen Here

Because we, the righteous, live in the blessed Midwest, we do not face God’s Wrath We are protected against all such natural disasters. CNN can entertain us with Disaster Porn while we comfortably eat popcorn in our homes. The local news can try to frighten us with “Superstorm Sandy, can it happen here?” stories, but we know the answer is no.

Not only will we never see a hurricane, we have no risk of ever seeing a tornado, earthquake, flood, nuclear meltdown, nuclear war, frogs, locusts, plague, or fire. As a result, we do not need to prepare for any calamity, and should continue to act without thinking about how to prevent such outcomes, how to defend against them, how to mitigate them, or the costs of accepting them.

But humor me. As a thought experiment, what if we considered what some critical pieces of infrastructure, our dependence on them, and their redundancy.


In 2007, the I-35W Bridge collapsed. This was unexpected, but overall the system responded very well, considering. Though delays increased for many travelers, there were alternative routes. A response to this was the accelerated reconstruction of many other bridges (Lowry Avenue, Plymouth Avenue, even Washington Avenue in its way to accommodate the Green Line). This was part of the “prevent” strategy.

The I-35W bridge is one thing, but what if all the bridges across the Mississippi within the Metropolitan area were severed? (E.g. due to an earthquake under the heretofore unknown Mississippi River Fault Line). We could supply stranded Minneapolitans by air (like the Berlin Airlift), but it probably wouldn’t get to that. More likely, we would supply the western half of the metro area by road and rail from the South and West. We probably could construct temporary pontoon or Bailey bridges in a few months like is done during war time. We could make use of Cellular telephone. Cross-river commuters would be greatly inconvenienced, and people would probably in general not commute to work across the river, but use telecommuting or some other means for a long period of time until capable substitutes were instituted.


In 2004, there was a 6 week strike at Metro Transit halting almost all of the region’s bus services. The Twin Cities is not special, though it is surprising how many previous strikes were successful by the union in extracting wage increases (Of course if strikes always failed, they would never be undertaken, and if they always succeeded, management would cave immediately). In this regard, we are not New York, an outage of transit will not have devastating transportation consequences for anyone but transit users in the region. Of course, transit users will be heavily inconvenienced. The normal responses (Drive if you can, walk, bike, carpool/vanpool, telecommute) will be engaged. The “prevent” strategy here is not to be reliant on a single transit provider. This is where breaking the transit monopoly would be especially useful. London has had a successful model of contracting out bus services to multiple companies, so even if there is a strike at one, there is not one at all of them. Redundancy is achieved through multiple over-lapping providers.


Each city has water intake and processing. These can become contaminated, as happened in Milwaukee in 1993, when a Cryptosporidiosis outbreak made 403,000 people ill and killed 104 (mostly premature deaths). If it is discovered quickly, we can switch to alternatives (bottled water – which carries its own risks, but in times like these, are probably the lesser risk), or try to treat the water to kill the germs before we consume it. If it is one water treatment plant, we can switch to another with some warning. Prevent here is ensuring the water treatment plant is working and having the best monitoring possible. Redundancy would be an interconnection between water treatment networks so if one plant is down, water from other sources can be switched on. My impression is such interconnects do not exist in general, and the water network is mostly dendritic.


Storm sewers overflow all the time, the risk is that sanitary sewers get overwhelmed with storm water, and untreated sewage gets dumped into the river. Fortunately for us, it is downstream of our water intake (sorry St. Louis). In terms of “prevent”, the Metropolitan Council is on the job. You can see the annual resort on Combined Sewer Overflow in Minnepaolis here, and overflows are trending to almost zero, but precipitation is down too. The longer term prevention strategy is managing precipitation, which technology does not yet allow.


Electricity can go down for any number of reasons, a failure in the key generating plants, or key transmission lines, or electrical storms frying various pieces of equipment. We have cases where electricity can be down for months due to ice storms. Having multiple inputs (from multiple technologies, located at multiple places) into the grid is one important strategy. Making sure the network is well maintained and modern is another. Having smart meters so peak demand can be managed is a third. Having your own backup or primary generators is a fourth. We then need to mitigate damage by having redundant technologies (e.g. natural gas heat), candle light and battery power.


No Twitter for you. If you have no electricity, your wireline Internet (and Cable TV) is likely down too. The Internet of course is designed to be robust to failure, but there are still key chokepoints, particular if your last mile provider goes down, or electricity goes down. Wireless devices may still have access if the power goes out for a short time and the wireless stays up, so the redundancy is good. How long will your wireless device operate without charge?

Natural Gas

We see the occasional natural gas explosion, but what if the network itself were downed. Fortunately we are supplied by multiple pipelines for natural gas, so there is some redundancy in the supply. An earthquake would result in many network ruptures and fires.


Suppose the airport is down. During the aftermath of 9/11 the entire US passenger air transportation system was taken off-line for a couple of weeks until new security measures could be instituted. Having a single airport down probably has a different cause. This can happen for many reasons, your typical weather event will shut the airport for a period of time. My favorite longer-term scenario is a giant sinkhole. Floods are or course one source of sinkhole, but the land of 10,000 lakes is really the land of 10,000 sinkholes. Fountain, Minnesota is called the Sinkhole Capital of the United States. We found a small one in our yard that nearly ate my wife (which we filled in), so yes, it can happen here. Airports can be affected, and clearly you don’t want to take off on a runway which is being swallowed by a sinkhole (like this one at Hernando in Florida, or this one in Halifax). For shorter distance flights, people can drive, or take the occasional train that runs through the Twin Cities. For longer distance trips, people will drive to alternative airports. Hopefully the sinkhole only eats one runway at a time, but if the whole airport is shut, St. Cloud or Rochester would likely get pressed into service and offer a lot more connecting flights. We might even see Amtrak up its frequency. Better geological mapping and monitoring might help identify these in advance.


What takes all the roads down? A blizzard is the most likely answer. A large, quick, unexpected snowstorm (or worse, ice storm) can disable a city for a few weeks. The Twin Cities are relatively prepared for snow, less prepared for ice, but you still have to have crews deployed and waiting by the snowplows before it starts. Good weather forecasts reduce the likelihood of unexpected, but without weather control, there is always the risk of it being large and quick. 10 inches of rain (as Duluth saw in this years floods) translates to about 10 feet of snow if conditions were right. I think even the University of Minnesota would shut down for that. The snow would eventually melt, and be cleared, but it could take time. Two feet of snow is enough to disable suburban Baltimore for well over a week. A place that doesn’t expect it has a hard time dealing with even modest amounts. There is such a level here in the Twin Cities as well, though less probable, is far from impossible. The 28 inches of the 1991 Halloween Snowfall is to date the extreme event. What if you double that? How long are you at home? How long are the stores closed or unstocked? How long can you last on cans of tuna and green beans? What if you couple this with a power outage? (well since it is winter at least the food doesn’t have to spoil).


We can’t really lose the air can we? London experienced the Great Smog of 1952 during a period of cold windless conditions. Particulates from coal (used for home heating and electric generation) formed a layer of smog over the city for 4 days. During this period it was difficult to see even a few feet in front. It is estimated there 12,000 premature deaths due to the event. St. Louis saw a similar event in 1939 and Donora, Pennsylvania in 1948. Fortunately we don’t burn coal in the city the way we used to. The air pollution we create now tends to have long-term affects, but not the short sudden ones. There is always the possibility that some chemical plant or Haz-mat train explodes and rains who knows what upon our heads.


Drought conditions over the long run can cause serious problems. It is not likely that a sudden drought would have sudden impacts, so in a sense, the risk of lack of naturally provided rain “services” is critical but not urgent. This tends to lead to under-response. Where is the backup water coming from? If it becomes serious enough, we charge for water, reduce non-critical uses (watering the golf course, car washes) and then reduce things like irrigation and watering the lawn, and then we eventually move.


Overall, we are not vulnerable in Minnesota to the kinds of failures that recently hit New Jersey and New York. We have different things to worry about. But as humans we are resilient to most predictable challenges. Nature has not wiped out humanity, or Minnesota, yet. “It” can’t happen here, but, with all apologies to Minnesota author Sinclair Lewis, something else can.

Tell us your favorite infrastructure disaster scenario, and what you would do to avoid it.