Preparing for Infrastructure Failures
Preparing for Infrastructure Failures
While the Ukraine invasion, energy crisis and COVID-19 drive most of our news today, the neglected upkeep of the our infrastructure combined with the ongoing international threats to it should factor into your efforts for greater resilience. And, it’s not just a U.S. problem because many countries throughout the world experience similar issues.
In this article, I will discuss the following threats, but I am also going to include a section on how you can prepare.
- Nuclear Plants
- Cyber Attacks
- The Grid
- Oil Refineries and Pipelines
- Roads and Bridges
The 1935 Works Progress Administration was responsible for a great deal of the bridges and roads we use today. Dams were another key part of the WPA projects and they are now 80 years old and starting to show major signs of deterioration.
Dams help generate power to feed the grid. In my area, the Tennesee Valley Authority (TVA) uses many power-generating dams. The largest example of this is the Lake Fontana dam. At 480 ft, this concrete dam is an awesome sight to see. Unfortunately, the dam was built in 1942 and completed in 1944. Although it is made of reinforced concrete, the steel rebar inside is getting old. As rebar rusts with moisture, all of the reinforcements in older dams will decay. Dams that are older have had even more years to deteriorate.
Earth dams are only meant to last for so long
Some big dams are made of nothing but rock and dirt. While earthen dams can work well for decades, it is typically advised that within 50 years, they should be reinforced.
The Fort Peck Dam near Glasgow, Montana measures 250 feet tall and an outstanding 21,026 feet long. That is a ridiculous size for an earthen dam. Completed in 1940, it holds back the 5th largest reservoir of water in the United States. The reservoir itself extends a whopping 134 miles. Can you imagine what would happen if there was a failure at any point of the 21,026 feet of this dam?
The Bottom Dam Line
If dams fail, not only will great portions of populated areas be flooded, but any ability to produce power could be wiped out for a long time, if not permanently. Losing the power generation capability of even just a few hydroelectric dams in any area would significantly affect the availability of electricity and the cost. Not taking care of our nation’s dams is a major threat to the grid.
How To Prepare
If you live downstream of a dam, you need to be ready to move. Having bug-out bags on hand for a rapid evacuation due to a leak or release of water is highly advisable. At the same time, if something major happens suddenly and you live close to a dam, you may not have enough time to escape. That is the scary part. That being said, you should familiarize yourself with the roads and topography of your area. Getting to higher ground as quickly as possible is the goal during a dam emergency.
I don’t like telling people that they should move, but concrete dams are safer than earthen dams, and if I lived close enough to a large earthen dam, I might consider moving further away. The lack of workers is another concern. Even if the government suddenly decides to make dams safer, I am not sure about their ability to get workers, especially with vaccine mandates in place.
If you read the news much, you know our ports have a lot of container ships waiting off the coast to be unloaded. This is just one of the major problems in the supply chain and transportation industry contributing to empty shelves and the unavailability of goods. Even if manufacturers could keep up with production, a problem is getting things where they are needed.
Foreign ports that shut down entirely for COVID-19 also contributes to this challenge. Not too long ago, a single case of COVID was rumored to have shut down a port in Schezwen, China.
Lack of employees combined with additional employee loss due to vaccine mandates has only worsened the problems at our ports.
At the time of writing, the busiest port in the U.S. is struggling to unload ships forcing more and more to wait offshore for long periods of time. There seems to be little being done to solve port congestion issues. The Biden administration telling ports to operate 24/7 during a labor shortage has proven ineffective.
How To Prepare
Until manufacturing actually returns to the U.S. in a significant way, we must deal with foreign-made products being in shorter supply and costing a lot more.
Some goods may not be available. This will lead consumers to make staples last longer.
Consumers can make a choice to cut out less important expenses from their budget, so they have more money to spend on foreign-produced goods. In some cases, the consumer may find that domestically-produced versions are now a better bargain, although in today’s environment that may not often be the case.
A lot of us have plenty of practice with supply disruptions over the last two years, but if things don’t improve, we may be in for a worsening situation. While you cannot stock up on everything, now is the time to consider what household and emergency supplies you might need on hand.
Questions I get asked a lot is how much food, water, and household supplies do I think people should have on hand? One year for most household goods is an appropriate goal to strive for, but I know it is unrealistic for a lot of people (especially when it comes to water). I generally advise people to start with a few months, and then add to that as budget and space allow. You can fit a lot of dehydrated food and canned goods in a closet with proper planning. Even those in apartments can have a year’s worth of food on hand if they buy freeze-dried or dehydrated foods and make use of every nook and cranny.
As long as electricity is available, extra small appliances might be worth purchasing. Coffee makers, microwaves, and other inexpensive appliances will increase in cost or not be available due to a combined lack of manufacturing and transportation issues.
Medical equipment and many medications are manufactured in China or India. If anyone in your home uses oxygen machines or other essential home medical equipment make sure it is in good condition and keep on hand extra masks or parts that tend to wear out. Also, consider extra battery packs should the grid go down. As for medications, keep as large of a supply on hand as you can. Renew your prescription as soon as you are allowed. Ask your doctor to write prescription for a 90-day supply if possible.
In some cases, nuclear plants are 40 years old or more. Instead of improving or shutting them down, they are given a renewal certification and allowed to continue operation.
People talk a lot about the general impact of the grid going down, but they almost always leave out one of the more terrifying possibilities during a moderate to long-term power outage: the onsite waste storage.
Nuclear facilities store a lot of spent fuel rods and waste on-site because the U.S. never created a spot for mass waste storage. Remember Yucca Mountain? Well, that never happened, so nuclear power plants just rely on cooling ponds with pumps that keep cool water flowing into special pools that house spent nuclear fuel rods. These rods still have plenty of radioactivity, and are very hot. If the grid goes down and the reactors run out of backup diesel, the water will start to boil off and eventually expose the rods leading to a radiation discharge.
Now, consider the fact that there are 93 active nuclear reactors in America, some in areas with significant populations.
How to Prepare
You can significantly increase your chances of survival if you are in the fallout zone of a nuclear reactor. First, if you live within 50 miles of a reactor, you need to be prepared to leave your home quickly. This means having a go bag ready.
I also highly recommend having a CBRN gas mask for each member of your family. Infants and small pets need evacuation chambers. Sure, this equipment costs some money, but it is nothing compared to the damage or death that can occur during a nuclear accident if you don’t have it on hand. If you want further protection, then invest in a hazmat suit that will block nuclear particles. Mira Safety makes some excellent masks and suits. (For the sake of transparency, I write regularly for Ready To Go Survival, a site that is owned by Mira Safety. I owned their gas mask before I started writing for them. I do not make any commission from selling their products.) That being said, I would be glad to answer any questions regarding gas masks and nuclear preparedness since it is a subject that I know well.
A Geiger counter can help you measure radiation levels as you evacuate.
If you’re not in an evacuation zone, there are ways to protect your home from any radiation. Check out this article outlining Chris Martenson’s personal radiation protection, and this complementary article about radiation on Peak Prosperity.
Cyber attacks are on the rise worldwide. Many types of business are often the target, but utilities and other portions of the infrastructure are key targets too. Many will remember the Colonial Pipeline hacking incident last summer. Hackers used ransomware on the pipeline’s control systems. What consumers were led to believe would be resolved in a few days took much longer, and ended only because Colonial paid the ransom.
Caving to the hacker’s demand will encourage some hackers to commit further cyber extortion crimes.
One should assume that computer systems managing nation’s infrastructure are cyber-attack targets.
How To Prepare
Consider what you would do during rolling blackouts, or moderate to long stretches with no electricity.
The best way to prepare for gasoline and fuel disruptions is to keep your gas tank at least ½ full, safely store extra gas in cans or a caddy at home, and pay attention to the news for signs of looming shortages ahead. For example, we know that if a major hurricane strikes the gulf, there is the potential for supply disruption in the near future.
If hackers can shut down pipelines, they can shut down the grid (we’ve seen nation states do just that). Our electrical power grid is extremely vulnerable to ransomware attacks, but there are other threats. From my house, I can see parts of the main power lines that are rusted and corroded. These are lines that carry power to urban areas in my region. This is quite common throughout the nation.
I have been writing about preparedness for a very long time, and while a lot of my readers are worried about an electromagnetic pulse (EMP), I have always considered the lack of maintenance and security of power stations and lines to be a far bigger, and more likely, threat.
How to Prepare
Having some backup power at home is not as expensive or hard as it used to be. In an extended outage, generators running on fuels like gasoline, propane or diesel will have shorter production lifespan than a solar power station.
Investing in some solar backup is a good idea. Panels can be used to charge up power stations. Some power stations are large enough to offer whole-house backup. There are plenty of small affordable power stations that are ready to use after an initial charge. Jackery makes excellent power stations that are lightweight and come in a variety of sizes to meet your needs. Goal Zero is another reputable brand.
If you have a grid-tied solar power system for your home, then you need to know that no solar power will be available to you if the grid goes down unless you have a battery backup system and a switch to disconnect you from the utility service. Some people opt for the battery back up at installation, but most do not because of the extra out-of-pocket cost. Grid-tied systems are typically designed to reduce or eliminate your typical power bill, not be a backup for a grid down emergency.
Rolling blackouts can happen anywhere and anytime when the power grid is stretched thin. This happened in Texas just last year because of a once-in-a lifetime winter storm. You need to have enough food, water, and medication on hand to get through at least a few weeks. During winter, this means also having plenty of warm blankets and clothing and some way to have some backup heat.
It is also important to have a way to prepare and cook meals if you are without electricity. Small propane stoves are a good option. If you have a wood stove, then you can enjoy the peace of mind of having a way to stay warm and something you can cook a meal on.
Since it can take longer to cook and prepare meals without electricity, it is a good idea to have some foods on hand that require little or no preparation. Cans of soup or stew will heat up fast with very little fuel.
Wood-fired rocket stoves are a good option for emergency cooking outside.
While you may think the loss of railroads will not affect you much, I bet you are wrong. They are another link in the supply chain moving freight worldwide for consumers and industrial use.
In American alone, railroads transport 61 tons of goods per American per year.
How To Prepare
When commodities don’t move as fast or as inexpensively as we are used to, we can expect prices to rise. This means more expensive power because we still get a considerable amount of power from coal-fired power plants. Bulk animal feeds are moved by rail, so any rise in cost or shipping delays can affect the food supply chain.
The most you can do to prepare for railroads not being maintained is try to conserve energy and try not to waste food. Be ready for some goods to take longer for companies to produce.
Oil Refineries and Pipelines
Over the last few years, there have been many oil refinery and pipeline shutdowns threatening fuel supplies for short periods of time. Hurricane Katrina shut down a significant portion of the nation’s refineries for weeks, adding pressure to fuel prices and availability.
President Biden revoked a key permit that was essential for finishing the Keystone XL pipeline. The 1,200-mile pipeline would have carried 830,000 barrels per day of oil sands from Alberta to Nebraska. Our use of Russian oil could be zero if that pipeline were operational
In January, Biden placed a moratorium on new fossil fuel leases and drilling on federal lands.
If political policies can disrupt fuel availability and cause prices to skyrocket, imagine what an attack would do.
How To Prepare
In my area, we are at the very end of the gas supply chain. Gas is delivered to basically everywhere else before it reaches the sparsely populated mountains of North Carolina. As a result, we do not let our truck get to less than half a tank. When supplies are reliable, we make sure our gas caddy is full, so we can keep running our Kawasaki Mule, chainsaws, weed eaters, etc.
It does not take a lot of fuel to keep our little farm running for months at a time. If you have a space where you can store a few gas cans safely, or if you have a spot that can hold a gas caddy, you can have a safety-net in case of a supply disruption. If you have a long commute, then you may not be able to store enough to get through a week especially with a larger vehicle.
During times of shortages or high prices, you should do whatever you can to reduce trips. Pick up what you need in town when commuting to and from work rather than going back out later. Avoid driving on your days off if possible.
Roads and Bridges
Ever notice the construction date on bridges? Well, for many, those dates are far in the past. Bridge failures are quite common.
Last year, it was reported that there was a huge crack in a main support beam of the I-40 bridge that spans the Mississippi River connecting Memphis, Tenn. to West Memphis, Ark. Shockingly the crack was first spotted and reported in 2016 by a kayaker. It took five years before the issue was addressed. The bridge was shut down for more than 11 weeks to make repairs. The I-40 bridge at Memphis has 41,000 cars on average pass over it daily. Imagine the traffic. Consider the carnage if that bridge had collapsed.
I used to live near the Skagit River in Washington State. A few years ago, a bridge collapsed. It was amazing more people were not injured, considering that the bridge is part of I-5. Some cars did go into the water. If the time of day had been different, the results would have been horrific.
Road maintenance is split between county, city, state, and federal agencies, which affects how fast and how well things get fixed. Some counties, cities, and states attempt to do a decent job, but road funds only go so far, and the labor shortages throughout so many industries make it harder to get jobs completed in a timely manner.
Those who live in lower-traffic areas or in small communities may find that they are last in line for repairs. When labor is hard to come by, and funds are tight, and only a few people are impacted, all too often, those that are out in more rural areas or on lower traffic roads get fixed last.
My husband and I don’t travel on interstates that much. The last few months of my pregnancy, we had to drive on the interstate more often, and we noticed things were not being maintained. While the pavement seemed alright at the time, the sides of I-40 in western North Carolina were overgrown with vegetation to the point that signs on the side of the roadway were obscured and difficult to read. It was clear the road crews were waiting longer between maintenance.
In the future, I expect that the pavement will be rougher, and there are going to be more potholes. Debris on roadways is not going to be cleared as quickly, thus posing hazards. Some roads that are paved may even go back to being mostly gravel or the gravel concrete blend that one used to see before asphalt became more commonplace.
How To Prepare
Bad roads can lead to breakdowns. Getting stuck on a road is never fun, but it can be a little easier if you pack a good car emergency kit and a get-home bag just in case you actually have to abandon your vehicle.
Those that drive more rugged vehicles may have it easier when road conditions deteriorate, but not entirely. No matter what you drive, you can expect tough road conditions to lead to more wear and tear in shorter amounts of time.
Finding alternative routes to get where you need to go and back is a smart idea. A route that may have taken longer in the past may actually be quicker if the roads of your main route are in rough shape.
Bridges not being maintained is something you really cannot do much to prepare for. If a bridge goes out, you will have to take a route that is likely to be a lot longer if you absolutely have to cross a waterway. If you can take care of business on your side of the bridge, it will be in your best interest.
At this point, there is simply no way for the infrastructure to be fixed before there are increasingly major failures. Even if an emphasis on launching repairs today, it would be a long time before things were up to par. The most the average person can do is be aware of the threats and prepare as much as they can by planning around them.
On a local level, a group of citizens may be able to spur action if they make a strong case to the right people. So, in addition to preparing your household for these challenges, consider contacting your local officials to let them know their voters want action.
Otherwise, what other ways are you preparing for infrastructure failures?
– Peak Prosperity –
– Peak Prosperity –
About the Author
Samantha learned the foundation of preparedness on the banks of the Skagit River in the North Cascades of Washington State with her single father, a Vietnam combat veteran. At 16, she moved to his home state of North Carolina where she worked on farm projects before attending Warren Wilson College, graduating in Environmental Studies with an emphasis in Sustainable Forestry. After college, she spent a few years in Ketchikan, Alaska before returning to N.C., moving into a 1970s Holiday Rambler camper on 11 acres of family land when the adventure of building a house and farming began! Over the years, her articles have appeared in various homesteading magazines such as GRIT, Back Home, Backwoods Home, and Countryside and Small Stock Journal. She is currently a managing editor and writer at Ready To Go Survival.