TGIF: We’re wasting these rehearsals for the next big disaster

Brownwood Bulletin
Gene Deason

The Book of Ecclesiastes teaches there’s nothing new under the sun, but it’s referring more about human nature than it is technological innovations. The “nothing new” part of technological innovation is that what humans can make, humans can break.

Most residents of Texas got a chilling taste of that fact as recently as February, when historically cold temperatures set off a chain reaction of failures in the state’s power grid. That subsequently took out municipal water supplies, a problem that lingered for days even after electricity was restored because water line breaks had to be repaired.

This week’s catastrophe involves the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack that idled the massive transmission system that moves petroleum products from Houston to New Jersey and other points in between. The pipeline’s name may not be all that familiar to many of us in Central Texas, but I’ve been aware of this company — if not its scope — for decades. A sprawling “tank farm” of Colonial’s storage facilities is clearly visible off the Interstate highway in North Carolina that links the 20 miles where my sister lives and the home of our parents for over 50 years.

According to news reports, Colonial’s pipeline carries as much as 45 percent of the fuel used to power the Eastern seaboard.

Officials said the interruption shouldn’t create undue hardship, with perhaps only minor price increases, because the hack is expected to be resolved by this weekend, allowing fuel to resume flowing. Just go about your business, they said, but conserve if you can, and everything will be back to normal before we know it.

However, reacting to any such crisis with calm and reason is not our nature. Americans are conditioned to respond to even the slightest possibility of any interruption in distribution by hoarding whatever items are in reduced supply. We know in our hearts that such behavior only makes things worse, but hey — at least I got mine.

Thanks to the “streaming” television options to which our daughter introduced us last year, I’ve been able to dial up (if that’s the term) the local Tar Heel State stations I knew as a child. It’s pretty much the same distressing images and desperate comments carried on network and cable news shows:

—Aerial shots of lines of cars waiting for their turn to fill up.

—Interviews with drivers saying they weren’t sure they would find gas to go to the beach on Saturday, or they wanted to fill up to beat expected price increases.

—Scenes of “out of gas” signs hanging on pumps, reminiscent of the energy crisis of the 1970s.

1970s? Ecclesiastes was right.

Then, the coverage switches to California, where no gas shortage exists, but the national news coverage of what’s happening 3,000 miles away has panicked people into waiting in lines to “top off” their tanks, just in case.

Making predictions is not my custom, primarily because I hate being wrong. But I do expect this: Memories of the Colonial Pipeline cyberattack will quickly fade as the distribution line is restored, and by Memorial Day motorists will have returned to their usual lifestyles. Normalcy is good, but forgetfulness is not.

While it’s not a prediction, I am concerned about one thing: Some future cyberattack won’t be as forgettable, and that will not be a good thing. We’re simply not prepared. The safeguards we have in place work for the perils we know, but are inadequate for what’s to come. Honest folks can’t fully anticipate what criminal minds are capable of imagining. That’s being unusually pessimistic for me.

If the worldwide pandemic of 2020, as well as the Texas Deep Freeze of 2021, have taught us anything, it’s that the next major calamity will be something we didn’t see coming. What’s more, if recent disasters have shown us anything, humanity will respond to it poorly. That also won’t be a good thing, but it seems to be our nature.

OK, maybe a self-proclaimed prophet did predict something similar in an obscure 1937 manifesto, but nobody took him seriously. The longer I live, the more I see things that were once deemed science fiction turning into science fact.

Whether it’s a disruption of fuel supply, or a pandemic that makes social interaction ill-advised if not deadly, or a spell of severe weather that shuts everything down, such situations are becoming increasingly common. Society is more complex and interdependent than ever, so resolutions will be similarly complex.

There’s nothing new about society fumbling its response to unexpected challenges, and there’s nothing new about people resisting what needs to be done to cope.

Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column “TGIF” appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at tgifcolumn@yahoo.com.