A week ago, with a heat wave bearing down on the eastern United States, heavy storms left millions of homes without power, mine being one of them. On the Sunday, around 1:30 am, I was sticking to my downstairs rec-room couch, contemplating why I had decided to buy such heavy fabric. My wife was lying on a comforter on our floor pretending to sleep, with our three restless cats arranged around the room. Air heavy, cool and stale. WTOP was playing an endless litany of downed tree and closed road stories. My new LL Bean lanterns cast a ghostly blue neon light. Then my lights came on, my TV lit up and my computer began to hum.
The DC metro area leaped forward, back to 21st century power, and I was contemplating how grateful I was my family would again be provided its hard-earned comforts and how much food I was going to throw away in my fridge. Not, I angrily thought, for the first time.
For the last 11 years, I have studied, read, written and discussed a lot about homeland security. It has morphed from being about saving our homeland from craven madmen to something that is now more like a civil defense – all inclusive of our infrastructure and our well being. We seem to be doing OK against the most egregious threats; however, our vulnerability in this modern age to the disruption of the infrastructure that maintains us – well, we clearly haven’t quite got a handle on this one yet. And, for those who wish us ill, they got a lesson in the last few days about how vulnerable we are.
After a couple of days of food restocking and air conditioning, I must admit I am angry. Why are we still so vulnerable to a simple storm? Why is our nation’s capital so vulnerable to such a thing? Where has the Homeland Security Department been? Did we not set up some kind of National Capitol Region to support and coordinate in the event of disasters? Questions unanswered and when answered done so by a slick PR statement or highly massaged testimony before some governmental body.
So, as E.B. White once said, here is the thing of the thing. Our electrical system is the baseline of modern civilization. We must have it. It touches everything we do and all we hold dear. Since homeland security has taken this responsibility upon itself to protect our “vital infrastructure,” it is perhaps time to do so.
I am no one’s liberal or conservative. My ever-practical midwestern mother always advised to use my “head for something beside a hat rack” (i.e., to think). Here is the thought: government does one thing – it protects its people by providing goods and services that private industry cannot provide through profit motive. It is up to the Federal government to step into these situations to a) straighten them out quickly and make sure all the players are doing what they need to do and b) figure out a way that it does not happen again. If the latter point makes it more expensive for utilities to bury wires or forces people to cut their trees – so be it. If we all need to pay more, that is fine, too. It is the price we pay for living the way we do.
As Milton Friedman said, “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” We can’t afford to not protect our infrastructure. DHS needs to lead and direct the effort. We need no more excuses about how bad the thunderstorms were and how forested we are. We have a problem that makes us vulnerable. Let’s fix it.