It may be hard to imagine America’s vast infrastructure as anything short of indestructible, but even steel has its breaking point. Natural disasters have the potential to damage infrastructure critical to the delivery of energy in ways otherwise impossible.

In a disaster, these assets are especially vital, as they help maintain the operation of hospitals, coordination centers, and communications systems during response efforts while enabling the efficient restoration of communities thereafter. That’s why the Department of Energy (DOE) is not only planning, but practicing at a series of special preparedness exercises, to ensure effective response and restoration capabilities should a large-scale disaster ever strike.

To this end, DOE’s Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response (CESER) in early May conducted its seventh iteration of the ClearPath exercise series. ClearPath was originally enacted as a corrective response to Hurricane Sandy, intended to improve energy sector emergency preparedness and coordination within the DOE and with state and local entities. It has since evolved into an annual exercise involving energy and emergency management partners from the both private and public sectors, the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA, expanding its scope and participation to address the spectrum of impacts from regionally specific disasters.

ClearPath VII in Memphis, Tennessee was unique for a number of reasons, as it anticipated the potential for an earthquake in the New Madrid Seismic Zone in the Mississippi Valley. The likelihood  of a powerful New Madrid earthquake with a magnitude of 6.0 or greater within the next fifty years ranges between 28 and 46%.

Preparing for an earthquake, however, unlike other disasters such as hurricanes, present unique challenges. An earthquake gives no warning. The best seismologists can predict is the likelihood of an earthquake, not that it will occur or will have a specific effect, so mobilizing resources in advance becomes difficult if not impossible.

The impact of an earthquake along the Mississippi River, for instance -- with its critical transportation infrastructure and waterborne commerce – would have national and international consequences. Such an extensive impact will require energy infrastructure operators across an eight state region to have not one, but many contingency plans in place for worst case scenarios.

For instance, because an earthquake can abruptly interrupt internet access, collapse cell towers, and blackout power, responders likely will only be able to initially communicate and coordinate via shortwave radio, satellite phones, or face-to-face. And traffic congestion caused by evacuation and emergency response efforts would likely be hampered by roads damaged or destroyed by fissures, cracks and sinkholes.

An earthquake in the Mississippi Valley region would have another unique distinction: liquefaction. When sandy Mississippi Valley soil is exposed to enough force, such as during an earthquake, it takes on liquid characteristics that could inundate highways with sludge and debris and cause structural damage to infrastructure, including substations, electric poles, and pipelines.

As a part of the ClearPath VII exercise, participants from across the state, including state and local government representatives, emergency managers, operators, energy sector and utility leaders, worked together through various scenarios to identify problem areas as well as opportunities to enhance readiness should an earthquake ever rock the Mississippi Valley.

ClearPath VII heightened energy sector partners’ awareness of the need to improve emergency plans and procedures, and underscored how state and federal governments must prioritize limited resources across the impacted states. It also identified critical interdependencies between regional energy sector and cross-sector partners from transportation, water, and communications.

As with ClearPath and its other trainings, projects and initiatives, CESER works across many fronts to protect our nation’s energy infrastructure from all hazards that could cripple our power system and threaten our national security: extreme weather, natural disasters, and increasingly, potentially devastating cyberattacks. When the Administration issued an executive order May 2 on America’s Cybersecurity Workforce, for instance, it underscored the strategic importance of our nation’s cybersecurity workforce to our national security.  In support of this Order, CESER has a number of initiatives underway to recruit and train more cybersecurity professionals with skills to manage and resolve these threats.

Exercises like ClearPath, likewise, are a very practical means of strengthening our nation’s security while growing the public-private sector partnerships so critical to a fast, efficient emergency response. They help DOE’s energy sector partners to develop new policies and procedures, identify areas for continued improvement, and they work to boost regional preparedness for any disaster that might arise, saving lives and sparing important infrastructure.

To date, over 800 of DOE’s energy sector, cross-sector, and state and federal partners have benefited from the knowledge and networking provided by the exercise series. CESER continues to explore the full spectrum of innovative solutions to secure thenation’s energy infrastructure from these ongoing threats, working with industry, state and local governments and leveraging the vast expertise of the DOE.

For more information about the role of the Office of Cybersecurity, Energy Security, and Emergency Response in energy restoration following a major incident, see our 2018 Emergency Response Summary.