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How Utilities Can Prepare for Potential Natural Disasters

September 1, 2022
Min Read
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The U.S. government’s site named September as National Preparedness Month. This year’s theme is A Lasting Legacy. We will give tips on how utilities can prepare for potential natural disasters.  

Find your state’s hazard mitigation officer to apply for a grant program from FEMA.

The rise of natural disasters

Natural disasters like floods, earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, wildfires can cause impacts like damaged equipment, loss of power, disruptions to service, revenue losses.  

The NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) reports that about 18 natural disaster-related events per year have occurred in the U.S. over the last three years, costing $315 billion. The unfortunate water crisis unfolding in Jackson, MI serves as a recent example of how lack of access to critical infrastructure can impact a community.

Here are a few resources to help utilities kick off National Preparedness Month.

Top natural disaster resources for water utilities

Preparing for different natural disaster types

While your utility might not be susceptible to all natural disasters, it's important to set the foundation to pivot during different emergencies. The EPA offers several checklists for water and wastewater utilities to use for emergency preparedness, response, and recovery activities, including:

Setting up mitigation plans

The EPA’s starter guide for “Hazard Mitigation for Natural Disasters” breaks down a four-step process to implement a mitigation project:

1. Understand the threat posed by the hazard

  • How serious is the natural hazard event you face?

2. Identify vulnerable assets and determine consequences

  • How will the disaster affect your utility?
  • What are the consequences (including damage, repair costs, service disruptions, public health advisories, and environmental impacts)?

3. Identify and evaluate mitigation projects

  • A mitigation action/project can reduce or eliminate the damage to equipment and disruption in service
  • Mitigation actions are evaluated against multiple criteria including effectiveness, practicality, and cost
  • FEMA has identified several mitigation methods that are predetermined to be cost-effective for water and wastewater utilities (e.g., elevate instrument panels, buttress raw water intakes, replace inundated pumps with submersible or inline pumps, as appropriate)

4. Develop a plan to implement the mitigation project

  • Who is responsible for taking what actions?
  • What are the costs and funding sources (grants, capital expenditures)?
  • What is the timeframe of completion?

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Keeping the power on  

Power access is critical for water utilities. This article featured by the American Water Works Association (AWWA) provides several resources for emergency preparedness during power outages, including:

  • Collaborating with local power utilities and emergency management agencies to restore power during an outage
  • Creating an emergency response plan to successfully handle a power outage

The EPA also provides standard operating procedures for water utilities dealing with power outages. The SOP template covers several topics including:

  • Generators and Backup Power: Emergency Power Facility Assessment Tool (EPFAT) from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can help evaluate your needs.
  • Fuel: Keep in mind how much supply you have for generators, how often you conduct maintenance.
  • Communications: How will you notify ratepayers of service delays.
  • Partnerships: Are there other resources you can reach out to for help?  
  • SCADA: Can staff operate without relying on SCADA (if access is lost)?
  • Staffing: Is there a plan in place to have enough resources and who owns what?
  • Access: Is there a way to clear the way for onsite access?
  • Safety: How can staff make it home safely?

These topics make up what’s called blue sky planning where you plan ahead during a calm period before disaster strikes.  

digital-first resiliency guide

Black sky planning

What if the natural disaster or its aftermath lasts longer than what you had planned for (typically, two to three days)? Black sky planning focuses on how to keep utility operations going during prolonged power outages. This guide walks through four steps to black sky planning for water utilities including:

  1. Defining top level goals
  1. Establishing minimalist service levels
  1. Developing internal requirements
  1. Developing external requirements

Leave a lasting legacy of resilience

How can utilities continue to pave a path towards resilience while dealing with the day-to-day? For some, it means connecting with other forward-thinking utilities who have implemented solutions such as digital twins to stay ahead of potentially devastating precipitation events. Or cities that have replaced aging infrastructure posing health risks to their community, without burdening them with the cost.  

If you’re interested in introducing digital solutions as part of your resiliency planning, reach out to the Trinnex team today.  

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Written by
Megan Simonian
Events Marketing Coordinator
Megan is a recent Northeastern University graduate and infrastructure industry enthusiast with a passion for reading and writing.

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