Dangers to Underground Pipelines &
7/11/2005 - Cornell University - London has responded
effectively to the disruption of services following terrorist
bombings July 7, but the event underscores the need for a careful
examination of the vulnerabilities of the underground infrastructure
of our cities, says a Cornell University engineer.
"I was impressed. The London Stock Exchange never stopped. The way
they've cordoned off areas, the business continuity was very good.
For such a potentially disruptive event they have done very well in
recovering and restoring services," said Thomas O'Rourke, the Thomas
R. Briggs Professor of Engineering at Cornell, July 8.
O'Rourke, whose research is aimed at making underground utilities
more resistant to damage -- whether from man-made or natural
disasters -- had just returned from London, where he was the
featured speaker at a June 30 meeting convened by the Bank of
England to discuss financial sector resilience in the face of
Until recently, O'Rourke said,
financial institutions had worried mainly about cybersecurity, but
after the World Trade Center attack, they became interested in the
external infrastructure networks that support their cyber
In his London talk, O'Rourke described the lessons of 9/11, based on
his own research at the site. Communications in New York City were
widely disrupted, largely because of damage to the underground
infrastructure near the collapsed towers.
Broken water mains poured
35,000 gallons of water per minute into a seven-story underground
space, filling it "like a big bathtub" and flooding transportation
tunnels all the way to New Jersey.
Falling debris smashed into a
vault beside the Verizon building just north of the Twin Towers,
"What wasn't severed was
flooded by millions of gallons of water from the broken water
mains," O'Rourke told his London audience.
He predicted that in a major disaster, cell phones would not be
helpful for emergency communications because of the overload on the
The prediction was borne out
after the London bombings, he found.
What does work besides two-way
radio communication, he said, is wireless e-mail through portable
devices like the Blackberry.
Because e-mail is not a
continuous flow of data like voice communication, mail routing is
more flexible and able to accommodate heavy traffic more
easily.Fortunately, the London bombings did not attack underground
They were aimed at destroying
transit vehicles and tying up the transportation system. But the
underground utility systems of large cities remain highly vulnerable
"We have been building for ourselves a more and more complex world
and packed our systems below street level with more and more
different components often with little planning or integration,"
O'Rourke pointed out.
"These systems have accidents
without terrorists. We'd like to make them work better under normal
circumstances. Irrespective of terrorism, there's a lot to be
In the Winter Structures Laboratory at Cornell, O'Rourke and Harry
Stewart, Cornell professor of computer and electrical engineering,
work with lab manager Tim Bond, research associate Mike Palmer,
information technology specialist Dave Ash and civil engineering
students with massive, computer-controlled hydraulic rams to
simulate the effect of earth movements on pipelines and other
The lab is part of a chain of
testing and research sites called the George E. Brown Jr. Network
for Earthquake Engineering Simulation, funded by the National
O'Rourke also is working with
Stephen Wicker, Cornell professor of electrical and computer
engineering, on ways to distribute remote sensors throughout utility
networks to monitor their behavior.
Much underground infrastructure is aging and was not designed to
handle extreme stress, he has found.
For example, he said, about 75
percent of water mains in New York City and Los Angeles are made of
brittle cast iron.
Newer mains use ductile metals and plastics that
have more flexibility.
Another problem, O'Rourke said, is that different utilities are
often in close proximity.
"You can have a major telecommunications
line next to a water main next to a high-voltage electric cable," he
In 1983, he recalled, a water
main broke in the Garment District in New York City, flooding an
adjacent electric substation, starting transformer fires that
released toxic chemicals.
Electricity service in midtown
Manhattan was shut down, and along with it the track signaling
systems of the subway, paralyzing transit.
And all during that week,
garment buyers came to town to place their orders for the year.
cost scores of millions of dollars, all from one 12-inch water
line," O'Rourke said.
The problem is aggravated, he said, by the fact that utility
companies often don't talk to each another, so workers are not able
to locate these dangerous proximities.
"We can make them strong where
they cross," he said. "Somebody has to know where they are, but
organizations are reluctant to disclose this information."
In August, O'Rourke will be off to a conference on resilient
infrastructure in New Zealand, where it turns out people do tell
"They have evolved to have a
more open and communicative arrangement among service providers," he
"They feel a threat from
natural hazards, like earthquakes, volcanic action and windstorms.
New Zealand is a living laboratory that is scalable to systems