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Monday, November 27, 2023

Hurricanes, Solar Storms, and the Fight to Keep the Power On

Earlier This week, Hurricane Ida swept through the southern US, hitting Louisiana and parts of Mississippi especially hard. The storm disabled the power grid across Louisiana, including heavily populated areas like New Orleans, and officials say it could be weeks before power is fully restored. It's not the first disaster to reveal how woefully unprepared our infrastructure is for weathering disasters—and it won't be the last.

This week on Gadget Lab, we talk with WIRED senior writer Lily Hay Newman about what caused the power problems in New Orleans, and how humanity can prepare for unexpected disasters (like solar flares) that might come in the near future.

Show Notes

Read Lily’s story about the power outages in New Orleans. Also read her story about how solar storms could cause an internet apocalypse.


Lily recommends upgrading from your iPhone 6S (or earlier), since Apple is about to stop supporting security updates on older phones. Lauren recommends the August 31 episode of The New York Times’ podcast The Daily, about America’s final hours in Afghanistan. Mike recommends the show Justified, which you can watch on Hulu.

Lily Newman can be found on Twitter @lilyhnewman. Lauren Goode is @LaurenGoode. Michael Calore is @snackfight. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth (@booneashworth). Our theme music is by Solar Keys.

If you have feedback about the show, or just want to enter to win a $50 gift card, take our brief listener survey here.

>How to Listen

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Lauren Goode: Mike

Michael Calore: Lauren

LG: Mike, it's been a week of some pretty heart-wrenching news, on top of the news related to the pandemic.

MC: Yep. The world is either on fire or underwater or at war it seems.

LG: Yes, it seems that way because it's true. So this week we're going to be talking about power on the Gadget Lab podcast, not the kind of power that involves influence or control, but power as utility, and how power might be restored to the people of New Orleans.

MC: All right. Let's do it.

[Gadget Lab intro theme music plays]

LG: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Gadget Lab. I'm Lauren Goode. I'm a senior writer at WIRED.

MC: And I am Michael Calore, a senior editor at WIRED.

LG: We are also joined by WIRED senior writer Lily Newman, who is patching in from New York. She's done the thing where she's hanging out in a very, very small space that we can see on Zoom, because it's better for sound. Lily, we appreciate you cramming yourself into what appears to be a coat closet.

Lily Newman: Thank you for having me. Welcome back to my closet.

LG: So we brought Lily on because today we're talking about the power outage in New Orleans. Earlier this week, Hurricane Ida swept through parts of the southern US leaving widespread destruction in its path. It also knocked out power across Louisiana, leaving over a million customers in the dark. And the city of New Orleans was especially hard hit. Now, officials are saying it could take weeks for the power to be turned back on. So today, we're talking all about power. In the second half of the show, we're going to talk about another dire potential problem. We'll talk about threats to our communications infrastructure from solar storms. But first, there's a more immediate crisis unfolding in Louisiana and parts of Mississippi. Lily, before we talk about bringing power back to New Orleans, tell us first what happened.

LN: So in this situation with Hurricane Ida, what I've heard repeatedly is that the winds were really strong. Instantly, Hurricane Katrina comes to everyone's minds. In this case, the levies, flood gates, pumps, all the systems that the federal government and Louisiana have spent billions on over the past 16 years, those were very successful at keeping the water out of New Orleans and in the city itself, there wasn't that sort of mass flooding issue. But the winds in Hurricane Ida were very strong and they caused a lot of electrical infrastructure issues.

This massive tower that holds crucial transmission lines, and which survived Katrina actually, it sort of memorably was still standing after Hurricane Katrina, that tower collapsed during Ida, sending equipment into the Mississippi River. In fact, all eight of the major transmission lines into the city of New Orleans are down because of various issues that crews are still trying to figure out right now. And all of that is combining to produce this mass blackout situation.

MC: Real quickly, I want to make a distinction between transmission lines that you're talking about and power lines, which are the things that are like on our street corners and that run into our house. Those aren't transmission lines, those are local power lines. Transmission lines are the very thick, very high voltage lines that carry power over long distances. So they carry them from regional power plants to switching substations. You may recognize them if you've driven on an interstate highway in this country. You see these banks of really tall towers with huge lines, and it looks like they just go off into the distance, because they're carrying power over very, very long stretches. And there's eight of these coming into the city and all eight of them were knocked out. Is that right?

LN: Right. Of the eight transmission lines, they're down for different reasons. It's not all because the towers collapsed. That's just one example. It kind of reminds me of, you could think of the pipes in your apartment building or in your house. And then there's the water main. And if there's a water main break and the water gets turned off, the pipes in your house are still fine. They're awaiting water, right? But the flow is turned off farther upstream. So similar concept here, not that there wasn't any damage to local power lines, but the focus of a lot of the massive systemic failures is on these upstream portions of the equipment.

LG: Obviously, pretty destructive hurricanes hit the deep South often. In your reporting, did you get a sense of how prepared the city and the people of New Orleans were for this disaster and how that preparedness may have helped in this case?

LN: Certainly, the major electric utility in the area, Entergy is very, very familiar with the recovery process in these situations, because unfortunately, they have to do it fairly often. When the rain stops and it's the first morning that you're looking at this destruction, the crucial thing is a very thorough reconnaissance process to make sure that Entergy and the other smaller utilities in the area fully understand what's wrong, what are the problems with power generating stations, what are the problems on those transmission lines that we talked about, what are the problems on every inch of local power lines, and getting a picture of the system so you can then start to strategize about how you're going to bring portions of it back up.

Having that experience from past storms allows them to do that process as efficiently as possible, though their estimate is still days to weeks. It doesn't mean you can get this done in two days, but after Katrina, they were able to bring power back up to all buildings that could receive power. There had been such extensive damage that that wasn't a given, but just that process took 40 days.

In subsequent hurricane recoveries, they've gotten it down. First it was like 30 days. Now, often, it's about three weeks. So I think that historic track record is kind of what's informing them saying that they hope they'll have everybody back on in around three weeks. Many portions may come back before that. They're trying to get everyone back as quickly as they can. And the infrastructure projects we talked about—like levies, flood walls, flood gates, pumps—all of those things are crucial, even though they're not grid infrastructure, because when you don't have flooding or you have much less flooding, you're able to start the reconnaissance process much more quickly.

Otherwise, you need to wait days for the floodwaters to recede before you can even really assess. Entergy and other utilities will go out in fan boats and things to start scouting early. But obviously, you're not going to restore electricity flow in a ton of water. I think that's very clearly not going to work. All these things, all the infrastructure improvements contribute to helping the grid get flipped back on quicker.

I would also note, though, that there are suburbs of New Orleans and low-lying surrounding areas where those projects are still planned but haven't been completed yet because it was such a massive effort since Hurricane Katrina to fundamentally rework the flood protections. So there are actually suburbs currently in New Orleans where there was massive flooding, and they are still needing to go through that old process of waiting for the waters to go down, scouting in boats in the meantime. So certainly, even though the success of those measures was heartening and a huge relief, the process is not done for sure.

MC: Now Lily, you said in your story that there were some new power plants, I think two new power plants in New Orleans that were designed to be somewhat hurricane-proof. What happened to those during the storm?

LN: Yeah. So Entergy has been working sort of in conjunction with the state of Louisiana, bringing on line these two new power stations, which are natural gas. They're billed as being more efficient than other, older Entergy natural-gas power plants, and they're meant to be cleaner and greener; at least that's the pitch about them. The goal with natural gas, it's very abundant in the area. It's easier to keep online during disasters. So that's the idea behind, OK, it's hurricane-proof because it runs on natural gas, except as you point out, like many of the power plants in the area, those plants are either down or partly down. And so it indicates that there's still an unresolved component here of how this resiliency plan is really going to work going forward. And it raises questions about how to improve it, for sure.

LG: Lily, thank you very much for reporting this out for us, telling us all about this. Stick around. Because when we come back, we're going to talk more about how disasters can affect our infrastructure.


LG: The power outage in New Orleans is something that the city is all too familiar with. It's the latest in a long line of infrastructure failures in the wake of disasters across the entire country. And it's also not likely to be the last. So here's another thing for you to worry about at night: solar storms. Experts have long been worried about how our power and communication systems could potentially be knocked offline by these solar storms. Lily, you recently wrote about these and how a bad solar storm could create an "internet apocalypse." Tell us about this. And I guess we should start with, what is a solar storm?

LN: Right. This is all very ominous, I just want to say. So a solar storm, also known as a coronal mass ejection, is an eruption on the surface of the sun that sends a cloud of magnetized, energized solar particles out into space. In some cases, this is completely inconsequential from Earth's perspective. And in other cases, that cloud could be heading for Earth. Even in that situation, these storms don't harm people, but they can really throw the electrical internals of our devices out of whack, and they can mess with the magnetic poles of the Earth for a little bit—compass needle swinging wildly, things like that. And that's the sort of situation we find ourselves in.

The thing, as you said, is that these storms are pretty rare. It's rare that the cloud hits the Earth. So we don't have a lot of experience with the types of things that could happen, because some of the biggest solar storms in recorded human history happened really before electrical infrastructure was widespread and definitely before the internet existed. So because there's a little bit of experience from the early days of electricity and things like telegraph wires, there's been a lot more focus on grid resilience and playbooks and plans for how grid operators would react to this. And there's just a bit more awareness in those industries that this is just something to have in the back of your mind.

MC: Lily, the story that you wrote concentrates on the undersea cables that connect the internet service from one country to another. Can you tell us more about that?

LN: When it comes to the undersea cables, fiber-optic cables that we use to connect the global internet, we don't have as much information about what these solar storms could do or what havoc they could wreak. And researchers at UC Irvine started thinking, "Well, yeah, somebody should maybe take a look at that, like what would happen?" So the scenario we're talking about here is if the power's down, the internet is down for pretty much all users, right? But if power comes back and the undersea cables are still impacted and they're down, what does that mean for global internet access and ability to connect? And so that was the focus of the research.

MC: So what is it about undersea cables in particular that makes them so susceptible to damage during solar storms?

LN: Yeah, it's in fact not the cables themselves, because the cable isn't really affected by these energized particles. But the big concern is these devices called repeaters that are sort of a redundancy to make sure that, as data is flowing along these long distances and there's going to be some signal loss and some integrity loss, the repeaters are like way stations to collect yourself. It's like a stopover to make sure nothing gets lost on the journey. And those have internal components that could be susceptible. And if enough of those are taken down along a cable, you start having irreparable or untenable signal loss. And basically it's not getting through, we're not picking up what you're putting down anymore.

With some of these factors, the researchers were really saying, we actually don't know, like we don't have enough information yet to model exactly what would happen and that's worrying. And we need to do more work and more interdisciplinary work with lots of different types of experts in order to look into this a bit more, because the work that's being done about this topic for the electrical grid is basically entirely talking about systems on land, but obviously undersea cables are in the ocean.

LG: So you talked about how this could result in just total signal loss, but I'm wondering about the long-term damage to these cables. So when these storms happen, does it nuke our infrastructure or is the damage temporary? And if it does nuke the cables, then ultimately we have to replace them, right?

LN: Right. So there's a few different factors here. First of all, the researchers found that this likely would be a bigger concern at higher latitudes. Cables that are physically at higher latitudes, the cables that go between the east coast of North America over to Europe with these really long spans. In other parts of the world, there's potentially a bit more of a safeguard just because of how these cables were laid. For example, in Asia, the cables use Singapore as a hub, so there'll be a stretch of cable, but then it stops in Singapore and restarts going in another direction. And since Singapore is at the equator, that gives those cables potentially more protection, is what the researchers were finding.

Again, likely the cable itself would be OK, but all this necessary equipment that's in these set distance intervals along the cable, all of that would be fried and would need to be replaced. And so part of the concern the researchers are raising is that similar to what grid operators have done, perhaps either the US or individual countries or the global community needs to have a plan and a playbook for how do we in the most quick and efficient way possible get out there with boats and actually replace these repeaters or the internal components that could be disrupted by this. So a lot of variability, since the storms again happen very, very, very infrequently.

It's just difficult to gather data, and it's difficult to know whether we would face the true worst-case scenario in any immediate future. But the thought is just, if we don't have any plan at all, then what you're saying would come to pass, which is that it's just incredibly time-consuming to bring the cable back online. And in the meantime, there could be all these cascades and knock-on effects and digital traffic jams in the rest of the global internet, as that tries to compensate for whichever cables are down.

MC: I think it's timely that this report is coming out now, because we're due for another solar event. The sun tends to operate in a cycle where it has a period of high activity on the surface of the sun and then a period of low activity. And we're ramping up toward another period of high activity. It's usually about every nine or ten years that we see high activity coming out of the sun. And I think the last time that we saw some was about six years ago, seven years ago. So we are approaching possibly in the next couple of years, a large solar event that we're going to have to be prepared for.

LN: Yeah, exactly. And this definitely is not my area of expertise, but I believe there are multiple cycles. So there's also a sort of like hundred-year-storm type of concept. There's a sort of 10- or 13-year cycle, then there's this longer cycle. And we're basically hitting the end of a lot or the beginning you might want to say of a lot of these cycles. Yeah. As you're saying, and especially as we are confronting so many other types of natural disasters worldwide, it does seem like an important moment to consider this, just as one of many things where it would be really productive and kind of behoove us as a global community to have a risk assessment and a plan for how to respond.

LG: All right. We're going to take another quick break. When we come back, we're going to talk about the big one.

MC: Nothing but good news on this show.

LG: Just kidding. We're going to come back and we're going to pour a strong drink and give our recommendations.


LG: Lily, as our guest of honor, as our … What is it? Our soothsayer? Our doom seeker?

LN: Yeah, guest of doom.

MC: Cassandra.

LG: As our Cassandra on today's show, what is your recommendation?

LN: My recommendation is, I don't know if it says the Cassandra or the resident Luddite, or what we want to call it. But my recommendation is that folks like me who are still using an iPhone 6S, that we get new phones.

MC: Oh, please.

LN: Because when Apple releases iOS 15 very soon, our phones are going to stop receiving security updates. And that is an unsafe position to be in. So I'm actively scouting for my next phone that probably will not have a headphone jack sadly, but will have up-to-date software.

LG: Planned obsolescence, I tell you. Lily, we do know a few people here who can help you pick a phone. Do you think you're going to get an iPhone or an Android phone?

LN: I will probably get an iPhone just for ease of transition, but yeah, I'm going to be reading a lot of WIRED coverage and WIRED recommendations. Lauren, you tell me.

LG: I am pretty happy with my iPhone 11. Oh, Mike's holding up two fingers. Oh, the Mini?

MC: Yeah.

LG: I don't know if … Lily, do you think you would like a small phone? A "smol" phone?

LN: So the Mini is … the footprint is slightly smaller than the iPhone 6S, but the screen is larger. So I definitely have thought about it, because it would sort of be like a real estate upgrade for me. I guess I'm the prime candidate for it, but I feel like I may be ready to step into 2021 normal phone size and just move forward. I don't know. What do you think?

LG: The battery life on the Mini is not great either. And then again, we're not really going anywhere these days.

LN: Cannot emphasize enough how poor the battery life on the iPhone 6S is. This was a known issue at the time. Even I replaced the battery, but it really does not get better as the operating systems get more processor-intensive.

LG: That's right. And the processors themselves have been upgraded quite a bit since the iPhone 6. The chemistry, of course, of lithium-ion batteries hasn't changed much from generation to generation or at all, but the processors become more efficient and can utilize the power source better. So yeah, we might have to bring you up to, and like I said, I'm pretty happy with my iPhone 11, which at this point will be a couple of years old, but some folks really like the iPhone 12. I'm sure we're going to see some upgrades with the iPhone 13. I tend to be of the thought that like you really don't need the Pro or the Max phones, unless you are looking for the absolute top-of-the-line camera. You care about things like, I don't know, having like lidar in your phone and the new ones are rumored to have like 1 terabyte of storage, which will be available in the advanced models, or if you just really want like a big fat phone. I don't think most people need that. So Lily, you might be good with, like, I don't know. We'll see what the iPhone 13 brings. Maybe the iPhone 12.

LN: Yeah. I'll be watching, because on the flip side, when you keep phones as long as I do, I typically like to get the newest thing, because most of the life of the phone, it'll be very old. So if I start old, then I'm already behind in the phone's long journey with me. So just trying to set everybody up for success here.

LG: Excellent point.

MC: I will say that I admire you for keeping your iPhone 6 for as long as you have, because I thoroughly believe that people should wear things out instead of breaking things in. So kudos to you for that. And when you get a new phone, yes, not having a headphone jack sucks, but you're going to love the camera, and you're going to love wireless charging.

LN: Well, if you have me back on the show sometime, I'll let you know how it's going.

LG: Yes. I was like, "Lily, are you free in early September for a review with the new iPhone?" We might be tapping you for that. Mike, what's your recommendation this week?

MC: I'm going to recommend an old television show. It's not that old. It started about 10 years ago. It's called Justified. It's six seasons long. It is a cops-and-robbers show starring Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins. It takes place in Harlan County, Kentucky. And it's about a US marshal who is competing with various criminal operations. Most of them are involved with his childhood friend, who is now his enemy. So it's like sort of this six-season-long face-off between good and bad, and the lines get blurry, of course. And the acting is fun and interesting.

And Lauren's giving me squinty eyes, but it is. It's not one of those shows where they win a lot of awards, because it's kind of cheesy. But it's good cheesy. And I'm recommending it for that reason in particular. It's not like a super heavy show. It's a cops-and-robbers show. So there's gun violence, but it's not super intense. It's not like The Wire, The Sopranos, or anything like that. It is as lighthearted as cops-and-robbers shows with gun violence get, and it is breezy enough where you can just sort of binge it and you don't feel terrible after watching three episodes in a row, the way that you would with some television dramas.

Anyway, if you're looking for a new show, which I'm sure at this point of not necessarily going out again yet, you might be looking for, I can recommend it if you've never seen it. I had never seen it. We watched it at my house over the last six months or so. You can dip in and dip out. So I would recommend it for anybody who is a fan of good television that's not trying to be something more than just a TV show. Justified.

LG: And that's on Hulu.

MC: Yeah. So it was on FX. And I think if you have any of the services that have FX, you can also watch it, but you can watch every episode on Hulu if you have Hulu.

LG: And tell us what your Hulu password is.

MC: No.

LG: Thought I would just keep going with the line of questions there.

MC: It's "password," but the O is a zero.

LG: Oh, Lily's impressed. Our cybersecurity reporter is impressed. The last time we were talking about streaming services and I half jokingly said on the show, just message me for my HBO Max password, I'll give it to anybody. I did get a message from a stranger.

MC: Did you give him your password?

LG: No.

MC: Oh.

LG: I was like, "I'm sorry. I was being somewhat facetious."

MC: Somewhat.

LG: Well, gosh, I don't really have … I don't have an uplifting, light, or breezy recommendation.

MC: All right. Well, hit us anyway.

LG: All right. Some of you may have heard of The Daily. It's a very popular podcast put out daily by The New York Times with Michael Barbaro. I listen to it fairly regularly. And this week on August 31, The Daily did an episode on America's final hours in Afghanistan featuring New York Times senior writer, Eric Schmitt. It's thorough. It's thoughtful. Honestly, it's not very uplifting. So I guess I am keeping with the theme of today's Gadget Lab episode, but I think it's a really important listen. So if you are wondering about those final hours of America's presence in Afghanistan, where we've been for the past 20 years, have a listen.

MC: Oh, yeah, I'll have to listen to that. It's in my queue. I haven't pressed Play yet.

LG: All right. Listen to it after Gadget Lab. All right. That's our show for this week. Thanks again, Lily, for joining us.

LN: Thank you for having me.

LG: Always great to have you on, and we're going to bring you back sometime in the fall to talk about your fancy new iPhone. And thanks to all of you for listening, as always. If you have feedback, you can find all of us on Twitter, just check the show notes. We'll include our handles there. The show is produced by the excellent Boone Ashworth. Bye for now. We'll be back next week.

[Gadget Lab outro theme music plays]

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