Peter Schorsch: Florida’s leaders need to protect our infrastructure from attack

A recent AP poll revealed that Americans are worried that our government can’t protect us.  And not without good reason — the botched handling of an Ebola victim, videos of police violence looping on the nightly news, arson-caused wildfires ravaging homes, ISIS threatening our homeland — are stoking a growing sense of vulnerability among Americans to the deeds of the “lone wolf” operator.

Consider, for example, that two weeks ago Brian Howard walked unimpeded through security checkpoints and into an Aurora, Illinois air-traffic control tower. This eight-year employee of the Harris Corporation carried with him knives and a container full of gasoline. He made his way to the basement where, with an improvised arsenal that probably cost less than $100, he lit a fire that would nearly bring the entire commercial aviation system of our country to a screeching halt.

Prosecutors allege Howard, by all accounts a “normal guy” working as a technician for the well-known Florida company, is singlehandedly responsible for the cancellation of many thousands of flights and the delay of tens of thousands more. He caused what is perhaps a multi-billion dollar economic loss to the American economy and revealed the weaknesses at the core of our complex modern world.

Modern infrastructure is an entanglement of mutually dependent systems. Taking the Aurora control tower off line triggered a chain reaction that would lead to a staggering number of cancellations and delays from coast to coast: 85 percent of flights at O’Hare but also 28 percent at LAX, 31 percent at LaGuardia, and 42 percent and 47 percent at Dallas and Atlanta, respectively.

These events raise this question: just how vulnerable is America’s infrastructure to a lone-wolf attack?

Over the weekend, 60 Minutes aired the first half of Scott Pelley’s interview with FBI Director James Comey. Early on in their conversation, Pelley asked about the dangers posed by lone-wolf attacks. Comey’s reply dripped with disdain. “People use that term, it’s not one I like because it conveys a sense of dignity I don’t think they deserve.  I prefer lone-rat to capture the kind of person we’re talking about.”

Infrastructure’s ability to absorb disruption without seriously derailing the whole operation is assessed through “fault trees.” Fault trees are set up like flow charts with branches that multiply as the reader moves further down the chain, signifying the exponential effect a failure “up chain” can have on the system as a whole.

Logisticians and security experts use these charts to assess vulnerabilities in the chain to try to prevent a single disruption from leading to a domino effect down the chart. Much time and money is spent making certain that critical branches in the tree are reliable and not susceptible to accidental disruptions that can snowball.

But herein lies the problem. Because the essential nodes of any infrastructure tend to be highly reliable against accidental disruption, they aren’t sufficiently backed up. This makes them high-value targets for intentional disruption like we saw in Aurora.

Earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal reported on a study by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission into the vulnerability of the U.S. power grid. The study indicated that if as few as nine of the 55,000 substations on the nation’s power grid were to go down, the nation could be in the dark for weeks, if not months. And this wasn’t nine  specific substations; taking different sets of nine of the 30 “critical” substations offline had the same devastating effect. Surely though these substations must be secure against all but a full military assault — well, maybe not.

Last year, we may have seen a dress rehearsal of one such attack. Seventeen large transformers at the Metcalf substation outside of San Jose, Calif., were taken out over the course of 19 minutes by high-powered rifle fire. The attackers evaded authorities, disappearing back into the night, and so while their motives aren’t clear, the implications of their actions are.

The Metcalf attack illustrates how poorly secured the nation’s power grid is and other infrastructure systems are no different. Thousands of miles of unguarded oil pipelines spider web across America and our woefully under-maintained highway and bridge infrastructures present an already weakened target.

The FAA has announced it will review safety protocol in the wake of the Aurora control tower fire, just as the FERC said it would enact stricter regulations for security in the months after the Metcalf attack. As for the nation’s ground transit, oil pipeline, sports stadiums, supply chains systems, and etc., it appears their efficient operations remain vulnerable to the whim of a deranged lone-wolf.

When the dust settles from this election cycle and public officials get back to the hard work of protecting our citizens, Florida’s elected officials need to seriously consider the implications of lone-wolf attacks and come up with a plan to harden our infrastructure.

Peter Schorsch is a political consultant and new media publisher based in St. Petersburg. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Peter Schorsch

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including Florida Politics and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. Schorsch is also the publisher of INFLUENCE Magazine. For several years, Peter's blog was ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.


Florida Politics is a statewide, new media platform covering campaigns, elections, government, policy, and lobbying in Florida. This platform and all of its content are owned by Extensive Enterprises Media.

Publisher: Peter Schorsch @PeterSchorschFL

Contributors & reporters: Phil Ammann, Jason Delgado, Renzo Downey, Daniel Figueroa, A.G. Gancarski, Anne Geggis, Kelly Hayes, Joe Henderson, Ryan Nicol, Jacob Ogles, Scott Powers, Gray Rohrer, Jesse Scheckner, Christine Sexton, Andrew Wilson, Mike Wright, and Tristan Wood.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @PeterSchorschFL
Phone: (727) 642-3162
Address: 204 37th Avenue North #182
St. Petersburg, Florida 33704

Sign up for Sunburn