Essays in the Category “Disasters”
I live in Minneapolis, so the collapse of the Interstate 35W bridge over the Mississippi River earlier this month hit close to home, and was covered in both my local and national news.
Much of the initial coverage consisted of human interest stories, centered on the victims of the disaster and the incredible bravery shown by first responders: the policemen, firefighters, EMTs, divers, National Guard soldiers and even ordinary people, who all risked their lives to save others. (Just two weeks later, three rescue workers died in their almost-certainly futile attempt to save six miners in Utah.)
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of these stories is that there's nothing particularly amazing about it. No matter what the disaster -- hurricane, earthquake, terrorist attack -- the nation's first responders get to the scene soon after.
If an avian flu pandemic broke out tomorrow, would your company be ready for it?
Computerworld published a series of articles on that question last year, prompted by a presentation analyst firm Gartner gave at a conference last November. Among Gartner's recommendations: "Store 42 gallons of water per data center employee -- enough for a six-week quarantine -- and don't forget about food, medical care, cooking facilities, sanitation and electricity."
And Gartner's conclusion, over half a year later: Pretty much no organizations are ready.
This doesn't surprise me at all.
Leaving aside the political posturing and the finger-pointing, how did our nation mishandle Katrina so badly? After spending tens of billions of dollars on homeland security (hundreds of billions, if you include the war in Iraq) in the four years after 9/11, what did we do wrong? Why were there so many failures at the local, state and federal levels?
These are reasonable questions.
Ten years ago our critical infrastructure was run by a series of specialized systems, both computerized and manual, on dedicated networks. Today, many of these computers have been replaced with standard mass-market computers connected via the Internet. This shift brings with it all sorts of cost savings, but it also brings additional risks. The same worms and viruses, the same vulnerabilities, the same Trojans and hacking tools that have so successfully ravaged the Internet can now affect our critical infrastructure.
Did MSBlast cause the Aug. 14 blackout? The official analysis says "no," but I'm not so sure. A November interim report a panel of government and industry officials issued concluded that the blackout was caused by a series of failures with the chain of events starting at FirstEnergy, a power company in Ohio. A series of human and computer failures then turned a small problem into a major one. And because critical alarm systems failed, workers at FirstEnergy did not stop the cascade, because they did not know what was happening.
Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.
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