Solar Storm Coming? Here’s the Plan.

Scientists and reporters  chattered recently  about the possible effects of two large solar flares that hurtled radiation toward earth at an estimated 2.7 million mph. As the radiation slammed into the earth’s magnetosphere, a geomagnetic storm formed, which spread southward the Northern Lights’ colorful display.

A mild solar storm like this can cause fluctuations in power grids and satellite communications, whereas a serious flare up can cause blackouts and affect satellite uplinks like GPS systems.

And while no major problems were reported, in the city of Denver, they were ready.

Emergency planners quietly consulted their recently drawn plans for such solar weather, which is filed under an “energy assurance plan.”

Cities prepare for most standard emergencies, like fires, harsh weather, earthquakes and the sort, plans that can be adapted to a situation’s specific needs. But emergency managers can come face to face with events that seem much less probable, like solar flares, an animal disease outbreak or an out-of-place chemical smell wafting through a city. This urge to anticipate as much as possible plays out in numerous U.S. cities, and counties, where plans exist for, well, much more than what might be expected.“Most cities aren’t planning for this type of event,” says Pat Williams, a planning specialist and emergency management coordinator in Denver. Geomagnetic storms, Williams says, pose a greater threat to cities at higher latitudes, “but such a storm could still cause problems in Denver.”

California’s San Diego County has a plan to deal with any radioactive waste that washes ashore from the destroyed nuclear reactors in Fukushima, Japan. Holly Crawford, the county’s director of emergency services, sees it as “more of a public perception issue than a safety issue,” because, she says, the possibility that any debris would be dangerously radioactive is “highly unlikely.”

A hazardous materials cleanup team would intercept any floating debris that happens to make the 5,500-mile journey to southern California.

Planning trends often follow the concerns of higher-level government officials, some of which never pan out. Often, says Dawn Williams, a senior planner for Jacksonville, Fla., emergency management conversations are driven by an “incident du jour.” For instance, officials once presented to her fruit flies and sinkholes as concerns, which aren’t usually problems for Jacksonville.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, New York City increased resources for surveillance. But attention shifted to coastal response plans after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. “People woke up to the fact that large cities are susceptible to catastrophic events,” says Chris Gilbride, a press representative for the New York City Office of Emergency Management. His office realized that “if a Category 3 or 4 hurricane hit New York City, it would make Katrina look like a small event.”

New York’s planning office has also responded to less catastrophic events. From 2005-2009, New Yorkers occasionally noticed a sweet, maple scent permeating their neighborhoods, especially in Manhattan.

“For a few years, we’d get a ton of calls about a sweet maple syrup smell in the city,” he says. “People were concerned because they were breathing in something they didn’t understand.”

In 2009, the city asked residents to call a hotline when they smelled the odor. Then, plotting the scent’s “when” and “where,” emergency planners analyzed wind directions and the production schedules of a number of New Jersey chemical plants to hunt the smell’s origin. In weeks, they tracked it to a fragrance plant in North Bergen, N.J.

Pandemics are common concerns and definitely on the list of standard hazards that every planning department accounts for. But what of animal pandemics? The emergency planners in Kansas City, Mo., have thought of that and are plotting a response to an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, a deadly animal disease that can spread rapidly among hoofed animals.

Countless head of cattle travel through Kansas City’s barns each day and come into contact with other cattle, a perfect environment for spreading the disease, according to Stephen Bean, an emergency management specialist in Kansas City.

“What happens when a cow dies of apparent hoof and mouth at a sale barn in Kansas, and it’s determined that it was purchased a week earlier at another barn just outside Kansas City and transported, along with hundreds of others, through the city?” Bean asked.

Because of the disease’s two- to seven-day incubation period, sale barns could have held several auctions and moved hundreds of head through their facilities before they discovered the disease, which by then could have spread quite far.

Officials could determine that thousands of head of cattle that came into contact with an infected animal need to be destroyed and disposed of to prevent further infection, Bean says. “While we certainly hope it doesn’t come to that, such an action must be planned out in advance if it is to be effective.”

His office also puts significant resources into hurricane planning, as the city is listed as a relief site for coastal cities seeking a place to send evacuees. They also are preparing for the day when the New Madrid fault shifts and an earthquake jolts the Midwest.

But some things can’t be anticipated, and if ever that one storm, earthquake or calamity wipes out communication, transportation, and water, there is the “stone-age plan,” Bean says. “We tell people they need to be self-sustaining for 72 hours because as a worst-case scenario it could take the government three days to recover from a kick in the gut.”