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  • Allen Schaeffer

The essential role of diesel technology in disaster recovery

Hurricane Ian struck the Florida Gulf Coast with a deadly combination of storm surge, high winds and relentless rain in late September. The crisis continues to unfold in slower motion, however, with rescue and recovery efforts uncovering the full extent of the devastation and, with it, the loss of more than 100 lives—a number expected to grow.

Much has and will be said about the storm: the great human toll on families, homes and livelihoods; its intensity and relationship to climate change; as well as the adequacy of planning, response and evacuations.

At this moment, the practical challenges of everyday life in the storm zone are front and center. Some of the top priorities include reconnecting communications networks, restarting drinking and wastewater-treatment systems, clearing debris, as well as repairing roads and bridges to provide access to affected regions.

In every phase of this unfolding disaster, glimpses can be seen of the critical role of diesel technology in the recovery efforts.

Fire and rescue engines and the Florida National Guard’s “high-wheeled” troop-transport vehicles, powered by diesel, rescue people trapped in flooded communities.

Construction machines of all shapes and sizes, wheel loaders and skid-steer loaders are clearing debris from roads.

Diesel-powered cranes are aiding in search and rescue efforts, lifting boats off of structures and roadways.

Larger work boats towing barges are providing access to cut-off islands as well as delivering supplies and heavy equipment, all of which are diesel powered.

Hospitals maintained electrical power thanks to backup generators, most of which use diesel engines, but had to transfer patients and close due to lack of water.

In every storm, our deep reliance on electric power comes into focus. The extent of outages and damages to the infrastructure, as well as the time for restoration of power, are top of mind and some indicator of the tremendous strength of the storm itself.

The massive pre-storm staging, and now the response of the electric-power industry—with more than 20,000 out-of-state utility crews working to restore poles and lines and put the power grid back together—is notable. Power outages have been quickly reduced from several million homes, to less than 850,000 in less than a week. The hard work of grid restoration to the most devastated communities is only now beginning.

Nearly all of these utility-response vehicles rely on diesel power, some traveling hundreds or thousands of miles from their home communities to Florida. Bucket trucks, also known as “cherry pickers,” auger-drill trucks and rigs to replace poles are all diesel powered.

The Army Corp of Engineers delivered more than 100 electric generators, mostly diesel powered, in advance of the storm.

Mobile high-capacity dewatering pumps are helping clear buildings and infrastructure of standing storm water, all powered by diesel.

Thousands of tractor-trailers are delivering essential food, fuel and drinking water to affected communities cut off from electric power and those essentials, most powered by diesel.

While efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions are part of the daily news cycle, Hurricane Ian demonstrates that government leaders and emergency responders turn to diesel in times of crisis.

Grid destruction, extended power outages, and massive flooding highlight the challenges facing the electrification of the transportation sector and a wholesale move away from fossil fuels.

Events like Hurricane Ian put into stark perspective the limitations of an all-electric transportation approach. They also illustrate the importance of having proven, available, and appropriate technologies like diesel that can serve us daily—as well in times of great need.

We need both clean electric power and advanced diesel technology for times just like this.

Author: Allen Schaeffer

Executive Director, Diesel Technology Forum


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