Hurricane Sandy presents state and federal officials nationwide with a superb opportunity to think through how to better utilize all their resources in an even worse disaster, says Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Stockton.

And a worse disaster is coming – either from human enemies or from Mother Nature, he warned the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC), meeting recently held in Baltimore.

Sandy has starkly illustrated “the nature of a complex catastrophe,” in which failure in one part of a region’s infrastructure cascades into failures in other parts, he told the regulators, who oversee electricity, natural gas, telecommunications and often water and wastewater management in their states.

For instance, Stockton said, some communications failed because cell phone towers were lost, or lost power, while disabled terminals and gas pumps meant transportation fuel shortages.

Planning for Armageddon

The infrastructure Americans depend on is so interconnected that “much more rigorous analysis” of failures and responses is needed, Stockton told the regulators, adding, “That’s all of you,” not just federal authorities.

Stockton said the US military has, among other things, air-lifted utility repair trucks from California to the stricken northeast and used the Defense Logistics Agency to deliver emergency fuel to ambulances, fire trucks and police cars.

“What more can we do?” he asked, noting the military always functions in support of civilian authorities, not as leaders of disaster relief. “We need to think this through.”

Stockton quoted Defense Secretary Leon Panetta as saying recently, “We are in a pre-9/11 moment.” Panetta was discussing cybersecurity, pointing to evidence terrorists have targeted digital control systems for critical electric, gas, water and telecommunications infrastructure, but Stockton said Sandy showed the nation needs to be prepared for system disruptions no matter what causes them.

He pointed to the New Madrid fault near the Mississippi. Earthquakes on that fault in Missouri in 1811-12 include the strongest tremors ever recorded in the eastern US, and scientists believe the fault could shift again at any time.

We are in a pre-9/11 moment.” – Defense Secretary Panetta

Another New Madrid earthquake could mean “multiple states without power for weeks or months,” Stockton said.

State and federal officials need to think through how they would confront a “severe disruption in mobility,” with roads and bridges destroyed as well as electricity lines and water supply down, he said.

State regulators, who control most utility spending on critical infrastructure, need to recognize the threats the nation faces and approve investment against those threats, Stockton said.

They also need to work with state and federal officials to think through disaster response and plan ahead, he said.