The boards have been a little testy the last couple of days, at least to my perspective. There is a degree of smugness that, while it is ever-present in the community, seems to be more openly expressed lately. Again this is my perception. I perceive a smugness in being a prepper that equates to being bulletproof, figuratively speaking, for some of us. We are secure in our revolving stores of food and meds and in our arsenals and surplus uniforms. We read books and watch movies about disasters and collapses that are sensationalized and antiseptic. We seldom consider the ugliness that the reality will be like.
I have blogged about the ugliness before, in terms of threats we seldom consider. However, a recent thread that proved to be very controversial was based on the contention that preppers will die in large numbers despite their preps. While I will eschew posting my opinions on the actual thread, the responses were interesting and sometimes headache inducing. Much of the response was indignant and some of it was smug with a hint of arrogance. However, some people, not many, demonstrated an appreciation of what could be faced.
The extent of what a collapse will entail is entirely open to speculation. There are some hard facts to consider. I am going to describe what might transpire for my region in the event of an infrastructure collapse, keeping in mind that I am conducting this exercise in absentia of the reality of having Washington D.C. 50 miles down the interstate. I am writing this with my life experiences and position within the MD Emergency Management system in mind. This is supposition and not the position of any government entity, federal, state, local, or otherwise. While I have oversimplified some things and maybe gotten the science slightly incorrect on others, the basic premise is still based upon things that have and could happen again. All mistakes of science or scale are mine.
The MD Air National Guard unit was on the news due to its 6 month deployment to support Operation Enduring Freedom and its airlift squadron was still undergoing aircraft type transition training. The National Guard is into month 2 of its Negev peacekeeping mission and month 7 of its combined infantry and MP missions in Afghanistan with ISAF. Maryland’s National Guard forces are depleted by 65% in manpower losses to deployment and 30% in equipment. As a result, state and local police and emergency services are also down by almost 10% due to dual membership in their departments and their Guard units. The late August heat and limited rain since March has local reservoirs down to emergency drought levels, prompting water use restrictions and fire bans throughout the state. Repeated tropical storms and hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico have driven the cost of fuel up, along with normal market pressures of the Labor Day travel lead-up and the refinery switchovers from retail fuels to home heating fuels. New taxation laws have led to more businesses leaving the state and driving the artificially low unemployment numbers higher. The housing crisis has whole urban neighborhoods virtually vacant and boarded up. Baltimore police are responding to an explosion in drug use and heat related violent crime. The state environmental agency releases the report on the tanker related spill from earlier in the summer when a tractor trailer driver headed to an up-county gas station during pre-dawn hours suffered a fatal cardiac arrest and crashed the tanker near a run that feeds one of the three reservoirs and leaked 100% of its contents in the several hours before its discovery by work commuters. The report confirms that local wells have significant benzene contamination and that the pumping station that brings municipal water from the reservoir has to be shut down for several weeks until the equipment can be cleaned up. The pumping stations at the other two reservoirs and the Susquehanna River are expected to pick up the slack with careful enforcement of water restrictions for the next 2-3 weeks. National Weather Service announces that Tropical Storm Mercedes is expected to hit Cat 2 or higher, status after hitting the Dominican Republic.
A planned federal, state, and local mass casualty exercise, planned 6 months prior, at the football stadium, complete with 5 controlled urban fires, goes awry with the result being one ambulance, two police cruisers, and a ladder truck being taken out of commission and 8 persons hospitalized, included 2 critical, plus one line of duty death of a firefighter. A police involved shooting resulted in the deaths of two alleged gang members, multiple arrests, and the death of a uniformed officer. The mayor’s office and the governor make repeated press statements. AM talk radio stations and news outlets are frenzied with reports and editorials. The Dominican Republic reports a death toll in the hundreds as Hurricane Mercedes hit at a surprising Cat 3 and is expected to strengthen as it moves toward Cuba. Late in the day, a riot between Occupy Wall Street and their opponents led to a major fire and explosion at a refinery near Seattle. The released petrochemicals and the resultant explosion and fire have environmental agencies, Homeland Security, and the Coast Guard scrambling, along with state and local agencies. Dozens of people are dead or critically injured, hundreds are being arrested and detained by state and local police, while hundreds more are being treated at local hospitals. The Governor of Washington activates a national military police company. Residents are being evacuated by the local fire departments. The nation is riveted and Hurricane Mercedes falls off the public’s radar screen.
The USS Comfort, the Navy’s hospital ship berthed in Baltimore departs to provide assistance to Seattle. The United States Ambassador to the United Nations was lambasted by envoys from North Korea and Iran, with Venezuela pledging petroleum support for military exercises near their sovereign borders and calls for Security Council sanctions against the US. China and Russia intervene as white knights, though cynics claim that it is to protect their leveraged investments in US businesses. The President, already perceived as weak on foreign policy vacillates on an appropriate response. Meanwhile, largely unnoticed, Cuba braces for a now Cat 5 Hurricane Mercedes.
In a surprising swing to the northeast, Cuba is largely spared the brunt of Mercedes. The path is projected to glance off Miami and head out into the Atlantic. The continuing heat wave in the Mid-Atlantic fills the hospital emergency rooms with elderly and homeless heat victims and fires are increasing throughout the state. A commuter train derails, with only minor injuries but substantial damage as it approaches Baltimore from DC. The State and Local transit authorities scramble to get stranded passengers to their destinations. I-95 and the DC and Baltimore Beltways and feeders receive extra traffic to their overburdened pavement and between the constant construction delays and increased accidents; the entire region is gridlocked for hours.
Another tropical depression is named Nathan, as it heads west from the middle Atlantic Ocean. Mercedes stalls off the coast of Georgia, bringing torrential coastal rains and minor flooding as huge surf surges are recorded as far north as Cape Hatteras. Baltimore struggles to cope with continued road closures from the train accident. A water main failure from the intermittent water pressure from the down pumping station causes breaks in 5 locations north to south from the county into the city. One of the primary commuter routes between the bedroom communities in southern Pennsylvania and Baltimore is shut down as a result, adding to the troubled metro traffic routing. Hurricane Mercedes drifts north and resumes its Cat 5 status after losing strength passing the Keys. Weather Service analysts are hoping it moves eastward or spends itself over Cape Hatteras.
Baltimore residents slowly realize that the north-south corridor of the county and city will be out of water for at least another day. Fire companies scramble to logistically keep enough tankers and engines in the area to augment the lessened hydrant availability. The same area was affected by the tanker spill, depriving the few people not on municipal water the use of their wells. The state and county struggle to distribute gallons of bottled water to affected residents. The remediation efforts are starting with heavy equipment, drills, and power plants being brought in to various points along the contaminant plume to recover the spillant and its vapors. Traffic in a number of residential areas are further affected by the presence of these operations. Hurricane Mercedes bypasses Cape Hatteras its peripheries hit south of Virgina Beach and Norfolk swinging westward with full Cat 5 force. Baltimore residents begin to take notice, again, as news from Seattle and overseas fades from the collective conscious and are replaced by fears of a hurricane traveling up the Chesapeake Bay. Tropical Depression Nathan is upgraded to Tropical Storm Nathan in the eastern most fringes of the Caribbean.
Schools decided to open the school year across Maryland on schedule, while emergency services move to anticipate damage from Mercedes. State and local emergency operation centers are stood up as damage reports from southern Virginia stream in. Virginia and North Carolina are taxed to the limit as the storm exits the Atlantic and firmly enters the mouth of the Chesapeake. Southeastern North Carolina and Virginia are declared federal disaster areas and the US Navy, Marines and state National Guardsmen are authorized to begin aiding the areas hit the worst.
The Federal Government announces a shut down for the next day in D.C. and the President flies to Camp David to wait the storm out. Ocean City, MD experiences near record tidal surges and flooding and the island is inundated as far north as Delaware. Several surfers and residents are reported missing after ignoring evacuation orders. D.C. and Baltimore brace for the storm’s impact. Home improvement, hardware, and grocery stores empty their shelves of generators, lumber, nails, tools, and food staples such as milk and bread within hours. Fights erupt at gas stations as stations run out of fuel. Tropical Storm Nathan gathers strength in the Caribbean Sea, almost unnoticed.
Overnight rains deluge the entire region preceding the hurricane’s advance and surging tides flood low lying coastal areas on both the Eastern and Western Shores of Maryland and Virginia. Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant goes offline due to numerous downed lines. Southern MD and D.C. goes dark without power. Schools close throughout the eastern half of the state. Water rescues and Coast Guard rescues are becoming more numerous as watermen and pleasure boaters seek to move their boats higher up the Bay for safer marinas. The coastal and island residential areas, tidal wetland and dredge spoil containments of Bay Islands flood completely with several bridge washouts. Water Treatment facilities and landfills begin to back up with the inflow of flood waters from the rain swollen rivers and creeks meeting the tidal surge. Several people drown. Penitentiaries and holding facilities are intermittently losing power, despite back-up generators, making the officials and guards pensive and uncertain. Inexorably, phone and cell service failures creep northward with the hurricane. The National Guard, undermanned and underequipped, rallies units from the western half of the state and stages them for response operations as the Central and Eastern counties shelter-in-place to weather Mercedes’ wrath. The radio and televisions constantly relay emergency alert broadcasts but more and more Marylanders are without power and unable to hear or watch them. The storm weakens considerably as it moves north into warmer and more restricted waters with more surrounding land mass. It hits the Bay Bridge at a Cat 3 force, damaging the bridge decking and causing some pier damage midway on the east bound span when a loosed coal barge, broken free from its temporary moorings, is pushed up the bay by the storm, hitting the pilings and buckling some of the piers. Kent Island’s western half is flooded under 2-10 feet of water and most of the residents that did not evacuate are stuck as the bridges over the Kent Narrows are shut down.
NOAA and National Weather Service predicts unprecedented storm surge for the upper Bay region as rains as far as the Great Lakes and upstate New York, and especially central Pennsylvania, drop, 10-30 inches or more in the preceding 72 hours, most of the storm water run-off draining into the Chesapeake and Delaware Bay watershed drainages causing the Susquehanna and Potomac Rivers to reach their high water marks and exceed them. Ellicott City, MD becomes a smaller version of Johnstown as the residents are forcibly evacuated and the Patapsco River dams are opened and in one case, begin to fail. By mid-morning the following day Ellicott City’s historic district will have 3-6’ of water in its streets.
Power fails throughout the central and eastern shore of Maryland as trees fall and knock out transmission lines due to high winds and saturated grounds. Transformers and sub stations cause fires and in some cases violently explode. Crews from power and utility companies in Ohio, West Virginia, western Pennsylvania, even as far away as Alabama, Louisiana, and Arkansas are enroute or already staged to assist their beleaguered brothers in local mid-atlantic companies as they seek to contain the damage and wait the storm out. So far 2 crews from Maryland and a crew from western Virgina have died in vehicle and transformer accidents. 2 firefighters were severely burned in a substation fire and explosion in Anne Arundel County. Baltimore Gas and Electric and Potomac Electric and Power Company estimate a combined total of 10 million people to be without power and admit to state and local emergency operations centers that those numbers are conservative and could be off by as much as 50% before the storm has passed.
Tropical Storm Nathan barely breaks the threshold to become a Cat One hurricane and is a mainly disorganized storm that has the USAF hurricane chase team out of Keesler AFB in Biloxi, MS , NOAA, and the National Weather Service scratching their heads as they try to determines its intent and path. The fear is another Gulf Storm that damages more oil platforms. Signs indicate that another depression that followed close behind Nathan and had originally been a part of Nathan will get enough separation from Nathan to develop into something bigger. This one is named Opal.
As night progresses in the Baltimore region, the storm passes directly over Baltimore City and the storm briefly stalls, weakening to a Cat One. Nevertheless, the downtown area, no stranger to hurricane flooding has 3 feet of flooding farther north than previously recorded and people would later be seen kayaking around Penn Station. Some of the animals at the zoo die when falling trees sparked a fire that was violent but quickly spent in the rain. Untold numbers of homeless that never found shelter are presumed to be dead. The sewage systems, ever a fragile construct, fail with the flooding and pumps without power are unable to stem the flow that contaminates the Jones Falls, Patapsco River, and storm waters that flood the streets. Baltimore’s Key Bridge has decking damage as a survey crew attempting to make it back to the transportation building crashes their truck on the span, causing a vehicle fire that will require a decking and suspension inspection before the bridge is allowed to be opened again. Southeast of the bridge, the dredge spoils facility with its moored barges overflow and the cofferdams fail, releasing waters with toxic heavy metals and other solid contaminants out into the creek and Bay. Storm surge lifts the contaminated dredge barges and beaches them, causing them to leak uncontrollably into the creek and onto the surrounding wetlands.
The fuel farms near Curtis Creek are endangered by a ruptured line and sparks from a crashing crane boom that ignites a fire. The Coast Guard Station at Curtis Creek readies itself to sortie as soon as the storm passes. The state emergency responder officials begin to realize the extent of damage as the Navy reports that the USS Comfort is in the Panama Canal and cannot return to assist.
The storms move rapidly north after finishing its stall. The storm surge for eastern Baltimore County is estimated to reach over 30 feet as the Bay narrows and the surge of water from the lower bay meets the river flows of the northern rivers that will not crest yet for several days. Peach Bottom Nuclear plant is taken offline indefinitely due to flooding in southern Pennsylvania and Conowingo Dam has all sluice gates open to mitigate any damage from the flooding Susquehanna. Several Susquehanna pumping stations for Baltimore municipal water are offline and flooded and the damage is untold.
Downtown, a multiuse high rise with some luxury condos catches fire from candles lit by careless residents who choose to have a hurricane party. Due to rising waters from the storm surge and deluge, the streets downtown have become virtual class one whitewater rivers in some places, reaching depths over 6 feet in tighter spaces. This prevents the fire department from responding. The death toll is expected to exceed one hundred and the city emergency operations center scrambles to see what a potential building collapse can affect. Residents and the odd employee at the building flee the 26 story building in panic, after realizing that the elevators no longer work due to the power outages. Injuries mount as the stairwells are filled with residents attempting to flee into the teeth of the storm. As the fire spreads, the 19th floor door was propped open to facilitate the fleeing residents, ignorant of the design of the stairwell and its increased air pressure. The stair landings are littered with flammable items discarded by residents that initially left with some of their possessions. As the fire enters the stairwell on the 19th floor, the slightly increased air pressure, though it fortunately was almost equalized by the loss of power and propped door, allows the fire to burn at a higher temperature and dozens of people in the stairwell are affected by the smoke as any remaining above the 19th floor are trapped.
Once outside, the people after wading and swimming through the lobby are confronted by 100+MPH winds driving waves and rain though the streets and piled up vehicles that flood waters have carried to and fro. Some are swept away by the now resurging current that is heading generally back toward the harbor or are held trapped by rip currents caused by suction from drains and manholes. Most are injured by unseen obstacles under the water and the filthy water sets up future infection problems.
Nearby, grounded international flights from Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshal International Airport have people who would not have normally deplaned there sleeping in the terminal to wait out the storm. A church mission trip from China was on their way home to Kansas when caught short by the storm and their plane was forced to land at BWI instead of diverting south, because of engine problems. Hundreds of people are camped out throughout the terminal and two people, a woman and her teenage daughter cough and shiver at the cold they picked up a few days before they left China. Concerned fellow church members bring them water, crackers and tea from the USO terminal and feel their foreheads as a fever begins. The airport medical staff, fully staffed in anticipation of the storm soon realizes that they need to get them to the infirmary. Concerned and supportive friends follow them and reassure them. IV’s and Tylenol are administered and the staff doctor, unable to get through on her cell phone to the hospital, determines that it is probably the flu and prescribes fluids and tries to get the fevers down. In a moment of clear reception, a cell message gets through to the MD Emergency Management Agency Emergency Operations Center from the transportation authority police at the airport that the people are under control in the airport with limited back-up power and that a few people are being treated for an apparent cold.
Twenty miles away from downtown Baltimore, Aberdeen Proving Ground and Edgewood Arsenal, located on the Bay and several creeks, are reassuring themselves that their haz-mats and chemical weapon stockpiles are secured and look to base operations continuity after the storm passes. The Garrison Commander, new to the post, idly wonders if the ground saturation or surging waters will turn up any old ordnance or chemical canisters in the creeks that flow through impact areas or the decade’s old landfills. Such occurrences happen rare enough to be newsworthy, but often enough that the Public affairs people and local residents know how to take then in stride. He makes a note to mention this to his staff and loses himself in the news updates online and from his own weather office.
Fifty miles to the west of Baltimore, the Garrison Commander of Fort Detrick finishes a brief by a representative from USAAMRIID, the US Army’s version of the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. Breathing a sigh of relief that the brunt of the storm is passing well east of the city of Frederick, he is reassured that the nasty bugs in the bowel of the labs are not likely to escape tonight under his watch. He turns his attention to the head of Public Works as they begin to brief him on the intermittent power outages and minor flooding from the rains and what resources they have to lend the Mayor of Frederick, if necessary.
Outside of DC, in Bethesda, MD the National Institute of Health lays mostly deserted except for an emergency crew. Most of Washington is at home and the federal Continuity of Government plan is in effect. Key government officials are either at their designated evacuation destinations or have their assigned Secret Service, or other LE protection with them. Emergency operation centers throughout the city are trying to determine the extent of the damage from Mercedes as she passed north toward Baltimore and how to get their people back to work. Municipal public works employees, stand-by contractors, facility maintenance crews, and National Guardsmen are tentatively dispatched to do damage assessment after fire crews initially survey areas for obvious hazards. Utility companies begin dispatching linemen to survey, as well.
Emergency operations centers throughout DC shudder when the news that the high water mark in the Potomac Basin is under several feet of water, putting many national and cultural icons in jeopardy. One of the Basin marinas has numerous boat and fuel fires- their causes yet unknown. A multi-alarm fire in a block of rowhomes in Northwest threatens to spread if more apparatus and fire crews from Montgomery County are not sent in for mutual aid.
Several fatalities from the fire and from scattered motor vehicle accidents are being reported. PEPCO, the local utility company, is requesting mutual assistance aid from regional companies from areas not affected to be increased. Several injuries and structural damage to residential homes from flying debris and downed trees are reported in Northern Virginia and in the Maryland DC suburban counties, as far away as Frederick and Washington Counties.
Dawn breaks as the National Weather Service confirms the separation of Nathan and Opal and concludes that both have the possibility of attaining Cat 1 strength but their paths are still uncertain. Mercedes moves north and turns northeast into Philadelphia and Delaware. The upper bay towns of Havre De Grace and Chesapeake City are flooded under rising waters from the Susquehanna River even as the storm surge starts to slowly recede with the outgoing tide. The National Guard equipment depot in Havre De Grace is emptied of all working trucks as Guardsmen, county employees, and civilian volunteers frantically work on sandbag dikes and pumps to combat the rising flood waters of a river that will not crest until early the next morning.
The President, flying over to survey the damage before heading to the Carolina’s as a pit stop on his trip to Seattle, declares North Carolina, Virginia, DC, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware federal disaster areas and makes preparations to do the same for the northeastern states later in the day. Flying over Martin State Airport on Frog Mortar Creek in eastern Baltimore County, he sees that the Air National Guard base flooded for about a quarter of its real estate. The runway is covered in water and debris on the southwest approach end for hundreds of feet from storm surge swollen creek waters and scattered across the ramp are the remains of several light aircraft that were improperly tied down and tossed about by the wind. Crews, both Guard and state, work frantically to get the ramps and runway cleared and operational again. Several fire stations on the eastern necks of the county and throughout the neighboring counties show various degrees of storm and water damage. In some cases, apparatus is stranded in flooded stations. Smoke from numerous fires throughout the county and city obscures the air and fire crews from Pennsylvania and as far away as 70 miles west are inbound to assist. He sees uncontrolled flooding finally receding with the tide along the west side of the Eastern Shore and the death toll reports are constantly updated higher.
The Governor makes a televised and radio address from northwestern Baltimore County at the state emergency operations center, but few can watch because the power outages are now estimated to be in the millions. The Mayor of Baltimore does the same but has to cut the press conference short when the fourth multi-alarm fire report comes in, from the warehouse district near the port. Exhausted fire crews have mounting injuries as they continue to battle the multiple fires, and in the case of one housing area, the decision to evacuate the residents and to battle for containment consign hundreds of apartments and rowhomes to destruction as efforts turn to containing the fire’s spread. The amount of unmaintained vacant housing filled with homeless and itinerant drug addicts makes the case doubly dangerous. The firefighter casualties has reached double digits and affects 4 different departments as outlying counties are forced to send crews inexperienced in urban firefighting to relieve the beleaguered City, County, and Anne Arundel County fire crews. The police are responding to non-life threatening medical calls with volunteer medic companies and muttering to themselves about how sooner or later somebody is going to get hurt from some gangbanger or a drug addict in the vacant housing blocks that characterizes the blighted streets of Baltimore. Shortly after 9 am, an explosion rocks a neighborhood in the eastside where one of the fires spread into a rowhome that apparently contained a methamphetamine lab. 10 firefighters and local residents were medevaced to trauma centers for critical injuries and 2 died enroute.
Maryland State Police and road crews, augmented with Maryland Defense Force and National Guard members work to clear the roads of debris after flood waters slowly recede. Using tow trucks and heavy equipment they toil all morning, with haz-mat crews on standby, to attempt to open roads that were poorly equipped for an emergency of this magnitude, especially during construction periods like they were in and the preceding days’ excessive usage. In some areas, small bridges over swollen creeks and runs were damaged beyond immediate repair and roads near shorelines experienced sinkholes as flooding waters washed out the roads’ sub base. Several vehicles, every hour have to be rescued from deceptively deep floods on low lying roads, exacerbating the problem.