As the Northeast struggles to regain its footing after Super Storm Sandy, many are asking two questions: (a) When is my power going back on?; and (b) Could any of this been prevented.  While I cannot answer the first question, the answer to the second is yes.

Next to the post-apocalyptic looking devastation on the New Jersey Coast and the fire in Breezy Point, NY, the most shocking thing about Sandy is the havoc  the storm reeked on critical infrastructure systems in New York City.  The reason it is so shocking is much of it was preventable.

While I never served in the military, I find that many military mission planning principals are just as applicable in the civilian world as they are in combat. Two I particularly like are “no plan survives first contact;” and “two is one, and one is none.”  See, even the most sophisticated, best trained, and best equipped military in the history of the world plans for failure.  In fact, even the special operations team who executed the Bin Laden raid – the best of the best of the best – planned for failure.  So, when they lost a helicopter the mission kept going and everyone got out safely.

Apparently, those responsible for critical infrastructure components in NYC never heard of either of these principals.  Generator systems failing at hospitals is simply inexcusable.  Failing electrical substations because of flooding is inexcusable.  Why?  Because their failure was foreseeable.  Let’s start with the generator failures.  It is not as if NYC has not had problems with its electrical grid and blackouts before.  Moreover, it is widely accepted that our electrical grid is junk.  The experts have probably issued more warnings about the need to upgrade our electrical grid than any other infrastructure component.  Therefore, something like a hospital should plan on having to run on generator power for extended periods of time. That means you need to make sure your generator system is redundant.  Your diesel fuel pump to your generator broke? You should have a second one (two is one and one is none).  Rain caused your roof top generator to blow out, plan for it (no plan survives first contact).

What about the subway systems and electrical substations?  Officials have known for years that many of these systems lie in flood plans.  The Army Corp of Engineers has flood plan maps for all of NYC.  They know where flooding is to occur is not based on conjecture or guesses but because it has flooded there before and the geography makes it susceptible to flooding . Maybe not recently, but recently enough for the Corp to let us know it is possible.  Accordingly, critical components should not be placed there and if they are they should be protected from flooding.  Officials should have planned for a flood occurring eventually.  In other words, they should have planned for failure.

In less than ten years we have seen a natural disaster cripple a major American city more because of the lack of planning by officials than mother nature. itself  Perhaps, for all of us, before the next one, they will learn that “no plan survives first contact,” and “two is one and one is none.”


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