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Build a better grid.
It was the signature digital moment of Hurricane Sandy: people tweeting that they had lost power. Some of that loss was unavoidable. A storm the size of Sandy would stress even the most resilient electrical grid. But that's not the grid we have in the U.S. We still depend on rickety 20th century technology to power a 21st century economy. Prolonged power outages are common even after storms far less powerful than Sandy; 3.2 million homes and businesses in the Northeast lost power, some for more than a week, after last Halloween's freak snowstorm. Many homeowners in rural New Jersey and Connecticut like those in developing nations like India have installed backup generators for when, not if, the grid goes down. That's smart, but weather-caused blackouts are more than an inconvenience. The Department of Energy estimates that sustained power interruptions (those lasting more than five minutes) cost the U.S. $26 billion annually.
Even budget-strapped utilities can prepare the grid for a major storm. Downed trees take out power lines, triggering cascading blackouts, so before Sandy, utility companies sensibly marshaled crews to trim wayward branches. That helped limit damage but could in no way contain it. Burying power lines makes even more sense, but it isn't cheap, especially outside dense urban areas one reason just 18% of U.S. distribution lines are underground. Better to integrate emerging smart-grid technology that would enable utilities to rapidly identify outages, isolate them before they spread and repair them. Modern life depends on the electrical grid. It should be more resilient than Twitter.
We're all in this together.
What really set Sandy apart was its immense size. It has been labeled a superstorm, with destructive winds and flooding extending more than 450 miles (725 km) from its center as it made landfall in Atlantic City, N.J. That meant the storm hit multiple states and tens of millions of people more or less simultaneously. Normally in a disaster, the hardest-hit states can borrow emergency personnel or utility crews from unscathed neighbors under mutual-aid agreements. Sandy's size made that virtually impossible.
The widespread destruction underscores just how important a strong federal response is to a natural disaster. The Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) which didn't exactly distinguish itself in the response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 declared a disaster in eight states and the District of Columbia before Sandy made landfall, allowing them to request assistance before the worst of the storm hit. FEMA isn't perfect: a government audit released this year found problems in how the agency trains workers. But we need it. That's why the prospect of FEMA's losing nearly $900 million of its $14.3 billion budget if Congress fails to avert the looming fiscal cliff is worrisome.