Kate McClaskey

The observation of Critical Infrastructure Security and Resilience Month this past November held increased significance in the wake of the unprecedented 2017 hurricane season. The designation is designed to increase awareness and appreciation about our nation’s infrastructure—the interconnected tapestry of services that keeps our daily lives running. As extreme weather and natural disasters continue to increase in frequency and severity, it is clear that our infrastructure must evolve and adapt.

Addressing risks to infrastructure security and resilience and improving the partnership between the public and private sectors is the charge of the President’s National Infrastructure Advisory Council (NIAC). The NIAC is composed of senior executives who own and operate the critical infrastructure essential to modern life, and conducts studies on physical and cyber risks to critical infrastructure at the request of the president. The White House recently tasked the NIAC with a scoping study to identify the key interdependencies and risks associated with a long-duration power outage that require closer examination.

To inform this study, the NIAC invited a cross-sector panel of experts to its Quarterly Business Meeting on Nov. 9. Panelists representing the Communications, Electricity, Financial Services, Transportation, and Water Sectors shared initial lessons learned from the 2017 hurricane season and identified critical cross-sector challenges facing their industries today.

Recovery from this hurricane season’s extensive damage will continue for months or more. For example, over 30 percent of Puerto Rico is still without power two months after Hurricane Maria struck. But NIAC members and panelists identified some success stories and key lessons amid the devastation:

  • Reliable communication is vital. During the height of Hurricane Harvey, only 4 percent of cell sites were down because emergency power generators had been set up to keep power running to towers. Maintaining emergency power generators can ensure that critical power sites stay online during events.
  • Coordinate efforts between the private and public sectors. In the past year, the Communications Sector worked with the federal government and other sectors on operation guideposts for possible future events. This resulted in a list of communications providers with contact information that was able to be compiled within six hours of Hurricane Harvey hitting the Texas coastline.
  • Investment in grid preparation can reduce the severity of future events. A little over a week after Hurricane Irma struck Florida in September, power was restored to 99 percent of state residents, due in large part to the Florida Power and Light Company spending almost $3 billion on strengthening its system and grid and making it smarter in the past 10 years.

NIAC members members and panelists emphasized that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach for infrastructure security and resilience. While some communities fared better than others due to geographic locations (e.g., island vs. mainland) and whether existing mutual assistance agreements were in place and able to be activated, there are lessons to be learned for all.

With new emerging risks, responses must become faster and policies must embrace new technology. The NIAC works to provide solutions to these complex problems, and will continue tackling these issues as the council works to define the scope of its next study.