Lessons From the June 29 DC Area Derecho Windstorm

The speed and path of the derecho windstorm.

Struggling to bump the Tom Cruise/Katie Holmes split-up off the front page has been the unusual ‘derecho’ storm that hit the nation’s capital and nearby states on Friday evening, resulting in at least 22 deaths, widespread damage, and over 4 million residences losing power.  MD, OH, VA, WV and DC have all declared states of emergency.

At the time of writing this – Sunday morning, some 36+ hours later, things have stopped getting worse and are now slowly recovering, and some understanding is evolving about the overall magnitude of what occurred.

Perhaps the most significant challenge remaining is over a million households are still without power.  Many are still also without water and/or phone service (either or both landline and cell phone).  Many gas stations lost power and were unable to provide fuel, and panic buying quickly emptied out ones which remained open.  And while we often associate storms with cold weather, the area is sweltering under a heat wave, aggravated by high humidity levels, making the lack of power for air conditioning a further inconvenience.

Utility companies are working as fast as they can to restore power, but are predicting that some people will be without power for up to a week.  One utility (Pepco) estimates that over 35,000 households will still be without power next Friday at 11pm.  At least six other utilities also have customers currently without power.

This is something approaching a Level 1 type event, albeit on a limited regional nature, and so offers us some useful lessons.

Update Monday :  It is now 2.5 days since the storm, and there are still more than 2 million households without power all the way from IL in the west to DC in the east.  This article reports several utilities as describing the damage to their power grids as ‘catastrophic’ – clearly a bit of rhetoric designed to excuse their slow restoration of power, but nonetheless, some millions of people would probably currently find themselves agreeing with the statement.

Update Tuesday :  It is now 3.5 days since the storm, and media reports are saying ‘millions remain without power’ and adding they are likely to remain powerless for several more days.

Update Wednesday :  Happy July 4th to everyone, but not so happy to the more than one million customers (ie many million people) who remain without power, 4.5 days after the storm.  See this article, for example.  We’ll stop the daily updates because we think the point has by now been well illustrated.

Some Lessons

Perhaps the most interesting lesson of all is that not even people living in the nation’s capital and the extremely affluent adjoining counties are guaranteed uninterrupted utilities.  Disasters can strike anywhere, and while it is true the derecho type storm was unusual, that is the whole thing about prepping.  Prepping is all about preparing for unusual events.  Everyone prepares for normal common frequent events.  Only people with foresight concern themselves with abnormal, uncommon and infrequent events.

Let’s put the strength of this derecho storm in perspective (if you’re unfamiliar with the term, here’s an explanation of what a derecho is).  While destructive, it was far from overwhelming in its power.  It was equivalent to a Level 1 hurricane.  Wind speeds were gusting over 70 mph and occasionally peaking over 80 mph in places.  Our utilities don’t design a huge degree of resilience into their networks, with the largest culprit of all being, of course, trees falling over above ground power lines.  One has to assume the utilities simply find it cheaper to occasionally repair outages than to invest more heavily in preventative maintenance up front.

There is also the fact that the storm was not well forecast, meaning people were ‘unprepared’.  On the one hand, claiming to be ‘unprepared’ is a fairly meaningless statement by many of the utility companies – being as how the only preparation they can do is to pre-position additional repair crews to work on the damage.  On the other hand, it is another reminder that even the United States, arguably the most technologically advanced country in the world, we are far from perfect at both predicting/forecasting significant bad weather events and also in withstanding their effects.

There should be something very humbling to everyone about how a glorified windstorm can do this much damage and catch us unawares in the process.

Although most outcomes were regional, one outcome that was more nationwide were outages to some computer ‘cloud’ services.  Amazon’s cloud services suffered a regional failure that caused various companies (most notably Netflix) to lose some services for periods of time.  This was the second Amazon cloud failure in a month.  As we’ve said before, computer cloud services are very appealing in many respects, but the reliability of cloud computing continues to be proven to be less that what one would hope for.

Clearly, to withstand something like this you need to be able to survive in place for a week or more without needing external resources, although in this particular event, community support shelters were available, and due to the geographically restricted nature of the event, people always had the option of simply traveling out of the affected area.  You need water, food, and energy as your number one, two and three priorities.

Energy is in two forms.  First, energy to power your household’s energy needs (probably in the form of gasoline, diesel or propane to fuel a generator).  Second, and more optionally, energy to power your transportation.

Beyond that point you can start adding increasingly less essential but still nice to have services such as bi-directional communications capabilities – to tell people you are safe, and to ask other people if they are safe, to communicate with emergency services if needed (oh – 911 service was down in many areas, although sometimes it was possible to call police and fire departments on their non-emergency numbers – make sure you have these for your local services), and to get updates on when normal services and utilities will be restored.

An increasing number of people now have only cell phones, not landlines.  It is true that sometimes cell phones are more reliable than landlines, but it is also true that sometimes the opposite is the case.  For the most resilient communication capabilities, you should retain a basic landline service as well as cell phone service.  Also keep in mind that when cell phone networks are overloaded, it is usually easiest to get text messages sent and received, even when you can’t place or receive voice calls.  Make sure your phone is capable of texting, and that you (and the people you’ll want to keep in touch with) know how to do this.

There is also the matter of, ahem, bathroom facilities.  While the news reports didn’t make such a big thing about this (one wonders why not) it is a fairly safe assumption that the municipalities that lost power for their water systems probably also lost power to their sewage systems.

It was also interesting to read about people who were torn between staying in place or ‘retreating’ to some other location.  They didn’t know when they would get power restored, and so didn’t know whether they should attempt to wait it out or go somewhere else until power was restored back home.

This is in line with the projections in our earlier article about when people will decide to bug out.  Our expectation is that most events will result not in a flash sudden decision by everyone at the same time to leave an area, to ‘bug out’, but rather by a gradual process, which means that the roads shouldn’t all jam up instantly and suddenly – and, most important of all – very quickly after an event occurs.

Useless Advice Awards

Some public officials love to offer advice, even if the advice is not necessarily very helpful.  Here are two examples of useless advice.

An award must go to the people who offered this advice – boil all water and let it cool before drinking it.

That’s sensible advice, ordinarily, but for people with no power and 100 degree temperatures, it does beg the two obvious questions – how will the water be boiled, and how will it then cool down again?

Better advice would have been to recommend people either boil their water if they have power, or treat the water, if they have water treatment chemicals or UV water purifiers or other specialty equipment.  But of course, the public officials making these comments realize that very few people have planned and prepared to already have such equipment, and the people who do have such equipment probably don’t need to be advised about its use.

The second award goes to the person who first cautioned that gas-powered generators create a lot of carbon monoxide.  He said that, to be safe, the generator should not be inside either your home or garage.  Okay, we can understand that.  But he also said that you should plug your electrical appliances directly into the generator if possible.

We are trying to understand how a generator, safely located in the open, some distance away from your house, can also have your household appliances – typically with two or three foot cords – directly connected to it.

Better advice would have been to recommend that people install a cut-over switch and run an appropriately rated connecting cable from the generator to the cut-over switch, but that advice doesn’t do much good to people who don’t have such things already pre-installed, and the people who do have such things pre-installed don’t need to be told to use them.  But the official could at least have said ‘run multiple extension cords from the generator to the house, use as heavy a gauge wire as possible, and keep their lengths as short as possible’.

Instead, the official wished to avoid all liability for his ‘helpful advice’ and so offered nonsensical advice that, while – in abstract theory – is correct, in the real world is useless and totally unhelpful.


The derecho storm that impacted on the DC region on Friday night created a minor, localized, and relatively brief Level 1 event for millions of households, some of whom will remain without power for at least a week.

None of what occurred should surprise us as preppers, although non-preppers are probably dismayed to see how vulnerable even the nation’s capital remains to the raw forces of nature.

It is helpful (for those of us who do not live in that area) to mentally put ourselves in the place of people there and quickly run through our checklist of how we’d manage without power and water, and with no gas at the local gas station either, for a week.

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