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How safe are electrical power grids in the U.S.?


Thousands in North Carolina have regained power in their homes after a gunman's attack on an electrical substation left residents without access to power, heat and, in some cases, water for days. Threats to electrical power grids in the U.S. are gaining more attention in light of the attack, including ones in Washington and Oregon last month. We're joined now by Erroll Southers, professor of national and homeland security at the University of Southern California. Welcome to the program.

ERROLL SOUTHERS: Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: There was an attack in North Carolina that we mentioned. There notably was an attack on a California substation back in 2013. Why are gunmen able to take out power grids so easily?

SOUTHERS: The grid is extremely large. It has about 6,400 power plants across the country, some 55,000 substations and over 450,000 miles of high-voltage transmission lines serviced by 3,000 companies. But because you're looking at a space, in terms of acreage across the country, that's so large, it's extremely challenging to monitor and protect. And many of these places are very remote, and so officers have to get there. And by the time they do, the attackers are already gone.

RASCOE: So, I mean, the investigations in North Carolina are ongoing. And you worked in counterterrorism at the FBI. Is there a reason to believe that these attacks on critical infrastructure are acts of extremism?

SOUTHERS: Absolutely, there's a reason. The whole notion here is that general feeling against - of those individuals who are against the United States government is the notion that the government can't protect you as a citizen or resident of this country. So now I've shut your power off, and it's December. And you have no heat, and you have no light. And that happens for hours or days. So what people start to do is lose confidence in the system.

When this first started to come about years ago from extremist groups, the notion was that they hoped they could trigger a response by the government of invoking, in some instances, martial law. And some even went as far as to suggest that they could trigger a race war. So it puts this nation in a state of chaos. And then they could go out, meaning these adversaries, go out and take advantage of that chaos and wreak havoc across the country.

RASCOE: How concerned should the average American be?

SOUTHERS: I don't know what you could do to raise their level of concern until they become victimized because that's just the general culture of this country. I can tell you for a fact that the Department of Homeland Security and other protective agencies in the country right now are certainly paying attention to this because, as we say in the intelligence community, coincidence takes a lot of planning. The fact that this happened now, close to the week of the midterms, after we had a contested election, and in this case of North Carolina, being in close proximity to a drag show that was happening that week nearby - in a county nearby - so all of those things put together spell out to someone like me that there's a concentrated effort here to take advantage of the situation, whether it's the political climate or other things that they can leverage to recruit and bring, if you will, attention to their movement.

RASCOE: You know, as someone who has been studying this issue, like, what are some ways that substations could be fortified against attack? Can you put, you know, some type of structure around the substations so - making them harder to shoot?

SOUTHERS: The average sniper rifle has a range of about 600 meters. A 50-caliber rifle has a range of 1,500 meters. Fifteen hundred meters works out to some - over 4,000 feet. So now you have to decide if we're going to put up a perimeter, how far away do we put it? Now you're putting a perimeter in a space that you don't even control or own. So what I'm saying to you is that it's almost literally impossible to protect against this vulnerability, and these attackers know that.

RASCOE: Are there ways that residents could prepare themselves in case something happens or, you know, a similar event happen - like what happened in North Carolina?

SOUTHERS: Great question. And again, Ayesha, what you're speaking to now is just general emergency preparedness that every American should be engaged in anyway, whether it's a fire, a flood, earthquake, tornado, hurricane, those emergency supplies, those generators, enough food for a week - cash, by the way, because one of the things that people don't realize is when the grid goes down, the ATMs go down as well. So cash, you know, water, first aid supplies - all those things that you would need in the event of a natural disaster are the things you would need if we lost the grid due to some man-enabled attack.

RASCOE: That's Erroll Southers, professor of national and homeland security at the University of Southern California. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

SOUTHERS: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALLAH-LAS' "HOUSTON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.