Blackout Prompts Federal Study of Facilities

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The 2003 blackout (search) has prompted the nation's emergency management agency to survey the vulnerability of critical facilities like water and sewage treatment plants, which failed along with the electricity, the agency's head said Monday.

Mike Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (search), said in an interview with The Associated Press he has initiated a national inventory of backup systems and vulnerabilities in the country's infrastructure to prevent future failures.

The nation's worst blackout occurred two weeks ago after cascading power failures darkened parts of eight states, from Ohio to New York. Water systems in Detroit and Cleveland were unable to handle the drop in power, and residents were asked to boil water while engineers made sure the system was free of contamination.

"It is unacceptable to me that water treatment plants, for example, don't have backup power or that water treatment plants are susceptible to that kind of outage," Brown said, adding he was surprised to learn many Midwest water and sewage facilities could not maintain a clean water supply.

"While I don't want to give a road map to terrorists of how to disrupt our economy and how to disrupt our lifestyle, I think we saw in Detroit and other places that that is a vulnerability we need to address."

Brown, who was sworn in as head of FEMA and an undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security in April, did not say how long it would take to complete the massive fact-finding effort, which will also look at other possible weaknesses besides water treatment.

He said FEMA also was conducting an internal review to determine how many of its own emergency response facilities lack backup power.

The "silver lining in the blackout," Brown said, was watching so many citizens rush to buy flashlights, batteries, and emergency supplies. The agency has been encouraging people to do that in preparation for terrorism or disaster.

Over the weekend, President Bush authorized up to $5 million in FEMA aid for New York state in the wake of the blackout.

On Monday, Brown left the door open to more federal aid to New York and other states with economic losses from the blackout. "Based solely on what I've read in the newspapers, New York may go over the $5 million cap," in emergency assistance.

And Brown expects other blackout-affected states to apply for FEMA aid.

The agency, which traditionally has responded to floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes, has tried to adapt to anti-terrorism roles since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. It was folded into the new Department of Homeland Security (search) in March.

The director also said:

— The security plans for the nation's nuclear power plants are in excellent shape, and his agency quickly helped those shut down in the blackout resume running safely.

— The federal government should limit aid to flood victims who continually rebuild in areas prone to flooding. "I want to do anything I can to narrow repetitive losses."

— The agency is seeking more money from Congress for its disaster relief fund, historically around $3 billion. Last year, Congress allocated far less to FEMA, which left it dangerously low this summer, forcing Congress to provide more than $900 million more.

A native of Oklahoma, Brown worked as a FEMA deputy director before succeeding Joseph Allbaugh, who oversaw the agency's $8.8 billion response to the Sept. 11 attacks.

To prepare for terrorism, Brown said, the agency's goal is to help state and local governments continuously improve their ability to respond to major disasters of any kind.

"You can't do enough planning, you can't do enough exercising of those plans," he said. "It will always be an evolving process. A vulnerability today may not be a vulnerability tomorrow."