Chapter 5: A Perfect Storm

Previous chapters examined several vulnerabilities in the electrical infrastructure of the United States and the various ways in which those vulnerabilities could be exploited.  The consequences of an electrical power outage typically involve the disruption of normal routines, a degree of inconvenience and perhaps discomfort and usually some economic losses.

We will now introduce an additional element that, if integrated with a well-planned attack, could leverage the previously examined vulnerabilities to produce a truly catastrophic event.  Such an event has the potential to include widespread chaos, staggering economic costs and, most importantly, a death toll significantly higher than that which occurred during the attack of September 11, 2001.

By timing an attack on the electrical infrastructure of a large city to coincide with a period of extreme weather, the maximum possible damage would be inflicted.  In the United States, that would be a metropolitan area in the low desert of the southwest during a summer heat wave or in a northern climate during a winter cold snap.

For the various reasons discussed below, saboteurs seeking to inflict maximum damage would likely choose the former.  Electrical consumption in the major cities of the southwestern deserts is far higher during summer than at other times of year, due primarily to the ubiquitous use of air-conditioning.  From May through September, the vast majority of homes, businesses and vehicles are artificially cooled.  In the hot desert environment of summer, air-conditioning is considered a virtual necessity.

During heat waves, the health and safety of inhabitants becomes critically dependent on a dependable supply of electricity to power artificial cooling systems.  In these extreme events, which may occur several times during a summer, daytime highs can range from 110 to over 120 degrees Fahrenheit.  Nighttime lows are likely to fall only into the upper 80’s to low 90’s.[1]

Furthermore, heat waves are expected to increase in severity and duration due to climate change.

“Heat waves have become longer and more extreme,” says the National Academy of Sciences in Advancing the Science of Climate Change: America’s Climate Choices (2010), adding that “it is very likely” that “heat waves will become more intense, more frequent” in the future.[2]

“Erik Klinenberg, author of the 2002 book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, has noted that in the United States, the loss of human life in hot spells in summer exceeds that caused by all other weather events combined, including lightning, rain, floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes.“[3]

The combination of a large population and extreme summer temperatures points to Phoenix, Arizona as being the most vulnerable target in the United States, though by no means the only one.  With a 2010 population of 4,192,887, Phoenix is, by a wide margin, the largest metropolitan population center in the southwestern United States.[4]

Phoenix, Arizona, a metro area of 4 million people largely dependent on distant energy sources. (Photo by nhyder51)

Among the 51 largest U.S. cities, Phoenix is in the unenviable position of ranking highest in several important temperature categories.  These include highest normal daily mean temperature, highest normal daily maximum temperature and highest normal daily minimum temperature.[5]  Las Vegas, Nevada is a close second in each category.

A significant factor contributing to the potential for a large death toll following an attack on the electrical infrastructure serving Phoenix is its relatively large elderly population.  The frail health of people in this segment of the population severely compromises their ability to survive exposure to extreme temperatures for an extended period of time. Consequently, they would likely be a major contributor to the death toll in the days following such an attack.  In Chicago during the heat wave of mid-July, 1995, 514 heat-related deaths were reported.  Three quarters of those victims were over 65 years of age.[6]  It is notable that although humidity was high, the temperature only reached 106 degrees Fahrenheit and the electric infrastructure was largely functioning.

Within this population segment, the residents of nursing homes are at particularly high risk.  A comparison of air-conditioned vs. un-air-conditioned nursing homes during heat waves showed significantly higher mortality in un-air-conditioned facilities.[7]

The State of Arizona requirements for backup power and water at nursing care institutions do not inspire confidence.   Those requirements stipulate only that “A plan exists for back-up power and water supply”.[8]  No mention is made of how long the backup supply must last or whether it must be sufficiently robust to operate continually during a major heat wave.

In 2008, 15,786 of Arizona’s elderly population were residents of nursing homes.[9]  The Phoenix metro area comprises two thirds of Arizona’s total population, so it may reasonably be assumed that approximately 10,000 of its inhabitants reside in nursing homes.[10]

Another segment of the population at risk from heat-related mortality is infants.  In 2010, the population of infants less than one year of age in Maricopa County, in which Phoenix is located, was 54, 236.[11]

Adding to the attractiveness of targeting a low desert metropolitan area during a summer heat wave is the fact that transmission lines will be conducting higher than normal electrical loads due primarily to air-conditioning demand.  The additional electrical loads, in combination with high ambient air temperatures, cause excess heating of transmission cables which in turn results in maximum line sag.  Transmission cables will be closer to the ground, and will thus present easier targets, than at any other time of year.

A few of the effects from a long-term blackout in such a setting are suggested by the comparatively minor and short-term Arizona-Southern California blackout of September 2011:

“The outages affected parts of Arizona, Southern California, and Baja California, Mexico. All of the San Diego area lost power, with nearly one-and-a-half million customers losing power, some for up to 12 hours. The disturbance occurred near rush hour, on a business day, snarling traffic for hours. Schools and businesses closed, some flights and public transportation were disrupted, water and sewage pumping stations lost power, and beaches were closed due to sewage spills. Millions went without air conditioning on a hot day.”[12] 

Several points are notable in that event.  One is that on that “hot day” the mercury in San Diego reached 97 degrees Fahrenheit, a merely uncomfortable temperature as compared to the killing heat of a Phoenix heat wave rising upwards of 110 degrees.  Another is that the outage was caused by cascading failures following a minor and easily rectified mistake on the part of a utility worker.  A well-timed attack by a lone saboteur taking out one or more major transmission lines in a remote area would likely result in a blackout of significantly greater duration and far more devastating consequences.

A heat wave would also significantly hamper efforts to repair damaged electrical infrastructure.  This is especially true if repair crews have few options for air-conditioned buildings in which to find relief from the debilitating effects of extreme heat.

Furthermore, a review of state and federal emergency response plans suggests that they would be overwhelmed by the challenge of meeting the needs of 4 million people following such an attack.[13] This is evidenced by the fact that no broad-scale rehearsal of such response plans has ever been conducted in the Phoenix metropolitan area commensurate with the scale of response necessary following an attack on electrical infrastructure during a major heat wave.  Furthermore, few people living in the Phoenix metropolitan area are familiar with these plans or with the logistical details of how 4 million people would be quickly and efficiently evacuated from the metro area.

As a point of illustration, the website of the Arizona Department of Homeland Security contains a page offering tips to residents about how to respond to a blackout.  The banality of the tips is indicative of how poorly prepared the Department is to respond to a major blackout during a heatwave.  Click here to read them.

In the next chapter, the vulnerabilities examined above and in previous chapters will be combined to illustrate the potential consequences of a well-coordinated but relatively simple and inexpensive attack by a small group of saboteurs on electrical infrastructure serving the Phoenix metropolitan area.  It should be kept in mind that such a scenario doesn’t necessarily require a group effort.  Even an attack by a lone saboteur could result in many of the effects described. 


[1] National Weather Service Forecast Office, “NOW Data-NOAA Online Weather Data”

[2] Nick Sundt, “Rising Temperatures Expose Cities’ Vulnerable Electrical Supplies”, Climate Science Watch, May 24, 2012

[3] Wikipedia, “1995 Chicago heat wave” July 6, 2012

[4] Wikipedia, “Phoenix metropolitan area” June 19, 2012

[5] Liz Osborn, “Hottest US Cities in Summer” Current Results

[6] Steven Whitman, PhD, Glenn Good, MS, Edmund R. Donoghue, MD, Nanette Benbow, MAS, Wenyuan Shou, MS, and Shanxuan Mou, MS, “Mortality in Chicago Attributed to the 1995 Heat Wave” American Journal of Public Health, September 1997, Vol. 87, No. 9, P. 1515, 1516

[7] Michael Marmor, “Heat wave mortality in nursing homes” from Abstract, Environmental Research, Volume 17, Issue 1, August 1978, Pages 102-115

[8] Arizona Department of State, Office of the Secretary of State, Title 9. Health Services, Chapter 10. Department of Health Services Health Care Institutions: Licensing, Article 9, Nursing Care Institutions, Section 916 (3) R-10-916-3

[9] Arizona Indicators, “Total Number of Nursing Homes and Beds” Morrison Institute for Policy Studies

[10] Wikipedia, “Phoenix metropolitan area” June 19, 2012

[11] Arizona Department of Health Services, “Arizona Health Status and Vital Statistics 2010 Report”, Table 10-A

[12] Nick Sundt, Rising Temperatures Expose Cities’ Vulnerable electrical Supplies”, Climate Science Watch, May 24, 2012

[13] Arizona Department of Emergency Management, “State of Arizona Emergency Response and Recovery Plan”


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