Facilitate Infrastructure Resilience
Facilitate Infrastructure Functionality, Continuity, & Resilience
The subject of facilitating infrastructure functionality, continuity, and resilience is as complex as that of increasing economic resilience, and obviously further complicated as all things are by the massive, overwhelming, ubiquitous catastrophe that is a worldwide pandemic.
This page is a discussion rather than a tutorial. On a subject so complex, it's the best way to get to a few of the key points relevant to our overall work on this site - to helping us find our way through this pandemic, and to transform our country as we make our way through.
Intro To How Bad A Pandemic Can Be
As the founder here, I will start with a personal perspective. It reads more like a blog post, but hey. We're informal here; if not deadly serious.
The first time I did pandemic planning was sometime in the fall/winter/spring of 2005-2006. We were in a post-Katrina world, and I was brand-new to the US Department of Homeland Security, having transferred over from another federal department after the hurricane to the DHS Office of Infrastructure Protection (OIP). Our office was responsible for coordinating critical infrastructure protection and resilience for the entire US, through a framework of partnerships, policy, interagency coordination, coalition- and relationship-building, and public private partnerships.
In the federeal paradigm, there are 16 critical infrastructure sectors. They cover things like energy, health and medical, emergency services, agriculture and food, postal and shipping, commercial facilities, and so on.
We did pandemic planning work in the dusty, nasty, crowded, too-loud SCIF we were all crammed into for our daily work as DHS stood up in a very freshly post-9/11 world. For reference, a SCIF is a classified environment with certain security protocols to protect some of the most highly classified information. Since space was at a premium, the place was tight. The brand-new not-so-shiny DHS headquarters had moved into a turn-of-the-century-before Navy facility, and the facilities were not up to par for our power and security needs. In a SCIF like ours, each workstation ran 3 computers, so we had a gigantic supplemental HVAC blower in the middle of every space and meeting room that made it very hard to hear. Every group meeting was cramped, and seemed to involve a lot of yelling. Unlike on the sexy TV shows where federal employees can discuss classified information openly in friendly open spaces with great window views and random walk-ins, this environment featured dark olive window coverings over heavy brown window blinds, and cockroaches that came out during the day.
All of which was maybe a fitting introduction to How Bad A Pandemic Could Be. That wasn't the official name of our pandemic planning process, but that was the point.
My takeaway from that work was that there was no way the US government or the private sector would ever do all of the things that could help make a pandemic less bad, but that there were some steps we could take to keep everything from going completely to hell.
One of the zones for that is in infrastructure. We can help make a pandemic less bad by facilitating infrastructure functionality, continuity, and resilience.
There's no simple 1-2-3-step process for how to do that. In reality, it's a whole realm, discipline, and set of policies. It's not some secret squirrel thing run by the federal government either, although there are a few classified aspects. It's more like a highly complicated patchwork of publicly and privately owned infrastructure in every town, county, tribal area, city, and state in this country.
Shifting Funding & Resources to Facilitate Infrastructure Continuity
There is critical infrastructure where you are, or maybe you work in it. Your city no doubt runs some of it, but quite a bit is run by the private sector. Each and every thing that is critical infrastructure should have continuity and pandemic planning as part of its operations. Every aspect of those plans and procedures should be funded as one of the highest priorities for that organization.
Businesses whose sole purpose is infrastructure have different motivations than municipalities, however, their resources are not unlimited just because they can charge for their services. As a pandemic persists, some will have less income as people simply fail to pay - but the government may require the infrastructure to remain on for the duration of the emergency. Which is a nice idea, but unlikely to last if, say, a power company goes bankrupt and there is no backup plan. The federal government has so far bailed out certain non-critical (to pandemic response) infrastructure industries... will they need to bail out power and gas companies in a few months?
Here's a municipal question. If you live in a city with a municipal electric plant, for example, hopefully your city has started cross-training employees, and shifting funds around to make sure that infrastructure is staffed and funded for the foreseeable future, even given the city's anticipated tax revenue loss to economic impacts. If your city is still funding non-critical services like mowing parks, you might have city leadership that is not paying attention to reality. Designate certain city park spaces as community gardens, and shift employees to learning to operate critical infrastructure or to producing critical supplies or equipment.
On the subject of materiel, infrastructure owners and operators in either the public or private sectors need access to PPE and testing capacity for continuity purposes. In this current pandemic, the US government continues to not facilitate production of PPE, tests, and other medical supplies and equipment. That will not just affect first responders and health professionals.
PPE and testing shortages will also affect the continuity and functionality of critical infrastructure. Infrastructure interruptions and failures lead to cascading effects.
Interdependencies & Cascading Effects
One of the most important concepts that came out of that early pandemic planning work for me is 1) every one of our systems and almost all of our infrastructure have interdependencies, and 2) when there is a failure or interruption in any critical infrastructure system or point, there will likely be cascading effects.
This happens every disaster, but usually on a small or moderate scale. In a ubiquitous disaster like a pandemic that touches absolutely everything, those cascading effects are going to be myrid. And they're going to be spectacular. Those cascading effects will cause more cascading effects. It's systems theory. There will be feedback loops. Some crazy stuff is likely. Add in the infectious disease itself that follows exponential growth models and you've got a real mess. Add in human nature, science denial, irresponsible counterproductive public health non-actions, dysfunction, corruption, ill-intent, and politics, and we've got some serious bad stuff coming. But I digress.
Interdependencies & Cascading Effects: An Example
Here's an example of interdependencies and cascading effects. Let's say you have a hypothetical water plant in a mid-sized city, and the infection gets to workers somewhere in the middle of the pandemic.
By this point, cities are already running tight on cash, because tax revenue is down due to closures. Water plant staff not hospitalized or quarantined do a local plant-based lockdown to limit risk; bringing in cots and staying on-site. However, the virus is already in the group, and continues to spread. Municipal water systems have a good mutual aid system, so mutual aid is requested. The requesting city is tight on funds and other cities know it, so they are reluctant to send their critical water plant employees to a known-infected facility, especially when they may not get reimbursed by the requesting city.
The federal government has not yet (in the real world) sent funds to local government agencies for these kinds of situations, and so the hypothetical local government in this example may not be able to get help to run this critical piece of infrastructure.
If the water plant fails, then what? Well, for starters, hospitals will have more limited water, as will fire departments - both critical infrastructure sectors. Grocery stores and other food distributors are designated as critical infrastructure in a pandemic, and they too will not be able to remain open with no running water. And then there is the GLARING PROBLEM OF EVERYONE IN TOWN NEEDING RUNNING WATER BECAUSE OF THE INFECTIOUS DISEASE. After all, one of the major number one public health recommendations in this current pandemic is to wash your hands.
^^ That scenario above is imaginary. Less so now, because it's actually quite possible that exactly that that scenario could unfold in a city near any one of us in the next few months - especially as most states are "reopening" despite rising spread rates.
We talk a lot during the current real-world pandemic about staying home and minimizing spread to protect our healthcare workers and first responders and also to not overload hospital capacity - but we would be super wise to also minimize spread to help keep critical infrastructure functioning.
Most of this page so far has address infrastructure continuity and a bit on resilience - especially as it relates to this pandemic. As has been noted - everything on this subject is complex and broad, and too tricky to summmarize into a nice website page.
Infrastructure functionality is worth mentioning here separately. It's not the same as continuity. Continuity is keeping it running. Functionality is having it in the first place, and for the foreseeable future. It's having infrastructure that isn't crumbling; that wasn't built a century ago. It's having infrastructure that serves an evolving society, too, like how the internet has suddenly become so much more vital - yet it's not infrastructure that everyone has access to.
There's a lot of big talk here early in the pandemic about how "recovery" plans should be all about infrastructure investment. That sounds great, but given the congressional track record for strategy for, say, the last 20-30 years, it's hard to see them coming up with strategic investments to facilitiate the kind of infrastructure functionality that we, the citizens, want and need.
How do we get to that?
We can start by talking about what we want to see in our infrastructure, and also looking at priorities and access to it - as well as assessing where our vulnerabilities are now. It's all systems stuff - so it's about creating, building, and evolving resilient systems, too. How much would shorter supply chains impact different infrastructure sectors? If we transform sectors like agriculture to facilitate increased domestic food resilience or sustainability, how will the needs of other sectors like transportation change?
The lists could go on and on. The point here is to plant some ideas, because again, as we navigate this massive disruption, we will be transforming, too. We're going to be iterating, problem-solving, and evolving this whole time. Might as well put some long-term strategy and intenton into it, too.
Awareness and exploration of possibilities can help us make better decisions when opportunities for making big pivots arise.
Here's an example.
This may be the best example I've seen yet of how we could transform energy use in this country to mitigate climate change. It's well beyond the provisions of the "Green New Deal" supported generally across the Democratic party. It's more aggressive, but it's also a paradigm shift. It's structured to bring the kind of change that car loans and mortgages brought to the twentieth century - essentially creating the middle class. This is a very different thing, but with similarly large-scale or perhaps evern more ubiquitous transformational implications. There's something to this:
One of the ways we can get to the kind of vision from Dr. Griffith in the "Electrify Everything" piece is political action and advocacy. Civic engagement can help, too.
Part of getting through this crisis is going to be holding the line; keeping institutions functional and intact.
Another critical part of getting through this is going to be keeping the infrastructure functional, intact, runnning, and resilient.
Neither is a small feat; nor will be evolving and iterating institutions and infrastructure as we can and as we need to during this crisis.