Energy Sector’s Vulnerability Threatens Health of Communities, Calls for Coordinated Response

By Tara Failey, MPH, CPH, George Washington University Student Contributor

In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, communities along the East Coast remained without power for up to several weeks. The impacts were vast: millions of residents went without heat while battling the cold for extended periods. Hospitals were unable to provide proper care for patients due to power failures. A failed backup generator even forced New York University’s Langone Medical Center to relocate more than 200 patients, including 20 babies in intensive care. [1]

NYC

Power outage in Manhattan after Hurricane Sandy (Credit: Geoff Stearns)

Natural disasters, such as Superstorm Sandy, serve as vivid reminders of how dependent we are on electricity, how fragile the system can be, and how energy sector failures can have profound impacts on health. During times of crisis, it is especially vital that critical infrastructure facilities be without power disruption.

Yet, power loss due to Superstorm Sandy serves as a bellwether of the increased fragility and vulnerability of energy infrastructure across the United States. This past week, the Washington Post reported on how outages due to weather have doubled since 2003 due to a combination of factors, including climate change and weakening infrastructure. [2]

The U.S. energy sector and power systems, commonly known as “the grid,” face potential threats not only due to man-made and natural disasters –like Superstorm Sandy– but also as a result of terrorism and degradation due to age. This trifecta of threats can have catastrophic impacts on public health delivery throughout the nation, such as those illustrated by the Hurricane Sandy example.

Implications for Communities and Health

Electricity sourced by the energy sector serves as the lifeblood of nearly every critical infrastructure application, including water systems, oil and gas pipelines, communications systems, buildings, transportation, healthcare systems, and emergency operations. Thus, failures in the electric grid can have a variety of ramifications for health and well-being, making it an important issue for local health departments and governments to prepare for and address. [3]

Possible Solutions

Successfully managing risks requires effective coordination at many levels between U.S. energy companies, emergency management agencies, and relevant federal, state, and local government authorities involved in energy. The Department of Homeland Security’s National Infrastructure and Protection Plan provides a first step in identifying and prioritizing critical infrastructure needs by providing a variety of assessment tools. [3]

To address new and evolving threats to the grid, some state and other local governments have developed policies to ensure energy security and reliability for emergency facilities. For instance, Texas and Louisiana have become leaders in building energy sector resilience. Their efforts have been driven by damage incurred as a result of previous hurricanes – such as Katrina – that demonstrated to policymakers that critical infrastructure needs to be reinforced with reliable sources of power. The result was the passage of critical infrastructure policies in both Texas and Louisiana.

Texas bills HB 1831 and HB 4409 and Louisiana resolution Ns. 171, respectively passed in 2009 and 2012, require all government entities to identify government-owned buildings and facilities that will be critical in emergency situations. The resolutions require that, first, governments identify which government-owned buildings and facilities are “critical” in an emergency situation (e.g. hospitals, nursing homes, shelters, water or wastewater facilities, and food preparation or food storage facilities); second, the entity in control of the facility must consider the technical opportunities and economic value of implementing safeguards. As threats to the grid continue to escalate across the nation, other states should follow the examples set by Texas and Louisiana. [4]

Even while these efforts could signify excellent steps forward to prepare for energy sector threats, local public health officials need not wait for the implementation of higher level decisions and resolutions. Moving forward, public health officials and healthcare partners can take action by improving the security of healthcare facilities and ensuring that backup generators are accessible, functional, and reliable. Healthcare facilities can coordinate vulnerability assessments across sectors. Finally, the healthcare sector can advance education about energy sector vulnerabilities by opening a dialogue with key stakeholders to improve partnerships, and prioritize protection of the electric grid.

While total protection of the U.S. energy sector is probably not possible, a coordinated effort by the electric power sector, all levels of government, and public health officials can reduce the chance of significant damage to the grid and could ensure that electric outages can be resolved with minimal costs to health and human life.

About Tara Failey
Tara is a student contributor for NACCHO’s Critical Infrastructure/Environmental Security programming. Tara earned a Master of Public Health with a concentration in environmental health science and policy from the George Washington University in 2013. Tara has held positions with U.S. Global Change Research Program and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in the Office of the Secretary.


  1. Anthony, T. (2012, October 30). Superstorm Sandy leaves 8.2 million without power. Detroit Free Press. Retrieved from: http://www.freep.com/article/20121030/NEWS07/121030100/Superstorm-Sandy-leaves-8-2-million-without-power
  2. Samenow, J. (2014, April 11). Report: Power outages due to weather have doubled since 2003. Washington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/capital-weather-gang/wp/2014/04/11/report-power-outages-due-to-weather-have-doubled-since-2003/
  3. US Department of Homeland Security. (2010). Energy Sector-Specific Plan: An Annex to the National Infrastructure Protection Plan. Retrieved from: http://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/nipp-ssp-energy-2010.pdf
  4. ICF International. (2013 March). Combined Heat and Power: Enabling Resilient Energy Infrastructure for Critical Facilities. Retrieved from: http://www1.eere.energy.gov/manufacturing/distributedenergy/pdfs/chp_critical_facilities.pdf

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