Blizzard shows infrastructure's hidden strength — it fails

Disjointed, imperfect infrastructure limits the impact of natural — or terrorist — events

As of this writing, it is 10 days since the first of two snow storms that socked the mid-Atlantic began. Road crews are still clearing snow and ice, but things are hardly back to normal. Streets that are technically open turn out to be impassable under normal loads of traffic. Public transportation remains spotty, walking is a challenge, and don’t even think about looking for a parking spot. Ice-laden gutters are still coming down, and power and phone service still is not completely restored.

It drives home the fact that our critical infrastructure is not a finely tuned, well-oiled machine. And for that, we can be grateful. What our systems lack in elegance and efficiency, they make up for with robustness.

It is hard to imagine a terrorist attack that could so effectively disrupt life in the nation’s capital as the snowstorms have for more than a week. Power, communications and transportation all were affected, if not shut down, for days at a time. But in spite of the severity of the weather, people found ways to endure and work around the outages.

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We tend to talk about our critical infrastructure as if it were a single, integrated entity designed to work together. In reality, it is a collection of elements that grew up haphazardly and have been cobbled together as opportunities arose into ad hoc systems. It includes highways, railroads, power grids and communications networks, none of which was designed with any thought toward interacting with another. It is surprising that they work together at all, and yet they often work together quite well. But the hidden strength of our infrastructure is that it fails.

We ignore or deny the inevitable, and when it occurs, there is no elegant failover to keep systems running. But we manage to function until the systems are restored, and it is remarkable that there is so little long-term damage. We are so used to power outages, road closings, flight cancellations and network interruptions that we constantly use backups and workarounds to lessen the impact.

What was the government’s grand continuity-of-operations plan for the storms? Shut down federal offices for four days. As in the aftermath of every disruption, people now are predicting that the government will finally establish meaningful telework programs that will enable full access to online resources from home. It probably won’t happen this time, either. But when the snow was flying, a remarkable amount of work was accomplished by people stuck at home with cell phones, BlackBerrys and laptop PCs.

That is not to say that we are invulnerable to attacks on our critical infrastructure or the effects of natural disasters. At least, those disruptions create a lot of inconvenience, wasted time, wasted opportunities and lost money. At worst, property is damaged and lives can be threatened and sometimes lost. But the system eventually heals itself.

If our infrastructure were rationally designed and fully integrated, it would be more efficient and support a higher level of productivity and convenience. But it would probably also be easier to disrupt, and disruptions would probably have greater consequences. It turns out that a combination of technologies from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries creates a pretty resilient infrastructure. Taking it down would probably be as hard as keeping it up.


About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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