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Crises and Disasters Are 24/7. Dealing With Them Isn’t a 9-to-5 Job.

Too often local governments aren’t prepared, with well-trained staff in place around the clock. That has big implications for emergency management and homeland security.

Petrochemical Fire Texas
Firefighters battle a petrochemical fire at the Intercontinental Terminals Company in Deer Park, Texas. The fire broke out early on a Sunday morning in 2019.
(AP Photo/David J. Phillip File)
We Austinites have had to boil our water during three separate episodes in the last four years. The first followed a drenching rainfall, and the second occurred during the massive Texas blackout in the winter of 2021. But the third, earlier this month, was especially surprising.

The weather was fine. The electric grid was stable. But on the evening of Saturday, Feb. 5, cellphones across the city lit up with a warning for residents to cut back on water usage and boil their water before drinking it.

The order was met with the predictable grumbling, as well as an air of resignation. Just as I had done twice before, I lined up our pots and pans on the stove to begin the boiling operation that continued for three days.

As Austin Water scrambled to get the water system back online, a series of surprises came tumbling out. The first was that, as the agency’s director, Greg Meszaros, put it, the problems came from “errors from our operating staff.” The second surprise was even more stunning: The water plant’s operators had discovered the problem at 8 a.m., but it took 12 hours for the boil water notice to go out to city residents.

Beyond the incredulity that the 11th largest city in the country could be without drinkable water for days lay an even more important point. Crises like these can happen any time, and governments need to be prepared 24/7 to respond — and to respond immediately, not half a day later. In fact, such crises might even be more likely to occur at nighttime or on weekends, when the systems and personnel are less prepared to deal with them. And this has enormous implications for our ongoing effort to improve emergency response and homeland security.

In Austin’s case, utility crews had been working on Friday night to bring an enormous water basin online and were using a water-calcium carbonate mixture to remove lime from the system. The operation was supposed to take just a few hours, but someone forgot to turn it off and left the process running all night long. That, in turn, stirred up turbidity — cloudiness — in the water, which pushed the plant’s output past environmental quality standards.

Crews didn’t discover the problem until the next morning and shut the plant down at 9:30 a.m. City officials quickly increased the production at the two remaining treatment plants and called in extra experts to deal with the problem at the first plant. But for reasons that weren’t clear, they didn’t warn citizens until that evening.

Predawn Calamities

A careful look at a long string of disasters shows how vulnerable key systems are to off-hours problems. A year earlier, most of the city — and much of the state — had found itself blacked out when the power grid collapsed during a winter storm. The blackouts began cascading throughout the system on Feb. 15, 2021, at 1:25 a.m., shutting down heat and water and leaving millions of Texans shivering through days of below-freezing temperatures that took the lives of more than 200 people.

In a separate incident, a Houston-area city manager, soon after dealing with a major refinery fire, once told me that he was struck by how often such disasters seemed to occur at strange times. One of the biggest in his area was the March 2019 fire that engulfed chemical tanks at an Intercontinental Terminals Company storage facility in Deer Park. The time of the fire’s eruption: early on a Sunday morning.

Then there was the alert of incoming missiles broadcast to cellphones and TV stations in Honolulu early on a Sunday morning in January 2018: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” It took a long and frightening half-hour for the word that it was a false alarm to reach terrified Hawaiians.

On April 26, 1986, operators at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine made a series of mistakes that led to a catastrophic accident. At 1:23 a.m., as a less-experienced crew attempted a test of the facility, a massive explosion blew the roof off the plant. It was the worst disaster in nuclear-generation history.

And consider the worst nuclear accident in American history, at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pa., on March 28, 1979. Following the failure of cooling pumps, the core of the reactor began melting down. It happened at 4 a.m.

All Disasters Are Local

What do all of these very different incidents have in common? First, they all intimately involved local government officials and personnel, from Austin’s local water authority to Houston-area firefighters to Chernobyl’s first responders.

The late House Speaker Tip O’Neill famously quipped, “All politics is local.” The same is true for homeland security incidents: They often begin, and almost always have their most powerful impact, at the community level. Think about the vulnerabilities of critical infrastructure like water and power systems: Since 9/11, homeland security officials have made these issues as central to homeland security as terrorist attacks.

Second, all of these incidents happened at inconvenient times, when the best-trained and most-experienced employees were not at their posts. Homeland security, it turns out, isn’t a 9-to-5 business. Strong preparedness — and an adequate response — depends on ensuring that control of the systems that matter are always in the hands of 24/7 teams that are well-trained and ready to meet whatever comes their way.

There’s no escaping the conclusion that one of the nation’s biggest vulnerabilities to homeland security issues of all kinds is the very uneven preparation of local government employees. The next big frontier in homeland security needs to be closing that gap.

And a final note about Austin’s water. After residents boiled their water for three days, scrambled to find bottled water in supermarkets, and drove across town to distribution centers to fill their jugs, they learned from city officials that the water had never been contaminated to begin with. Water administrator Meszaros resigned, the employees on duty at the time were placed on administrative leave, and City Manager Spencer Cronk pledged that the city would do all it could to begin the tough process of regaining the trust of its residents. A good first step, in Austin and elsewhere, would be making sure that well-trained city workers are on the job whenever something bad might happen — and that’s 24/7.

Governing’s opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing’s editors or management.
Donald F. Kettl is professor emeritus and former dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Policy. He is the co-author with William D. Eggers of Bridgebuilders: How Government Can Transcend Boundaries to Solve Big Problems.
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