Before getting to the

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Before getting to the meat of this post, let me stipulate that there are some cases where restoring critical infrastructure after a natural disaster is more important than restoring power to civilian neighborhoods, hospitals or even possibly saving lives.

That said, this seems awfully odd.

Today in the Post Dan Froomkin linked to an article in the Hattiesburg (Mississippi) American.

The article begins …

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina roared through South Mississippi knocking out electricity and communication systems, the White House ordered power restored to a pipeline that sends fuel to the Northeast.

That order – to restart two power substations in Collins that serve Colonial Pipeline Co. – delayed efforts by at least 24 hours to restore power to two rural hospitals and a number of water systems in the Pine Belt.

At the time, gasoline was in short supply across the country because of Katrina. Prices increased dramatically and lines formed at pumps across the South.

“I considered it a presidential directive to get those pipelines operating,” said Jim Compton, general manager of the South Mississippi Electric Power Association – which distributes power that rural electric cooperatives sell to consumers and businesses.

Later Compton is quoted as saying: “We were led to believe a national emergency was created when the pipelines were shut down.”

Then it gets a bit more interesting as we hear how Compton got the word …

Dan Jordan, manager of Southern Pines Electric Power Association, said Vice President Dick Cheney’s office called and left voice mails twice shortly after the storm struck, saying the Collins substations needed power restored immediately.

Jordan dated the first call the night of Aug. 30 and the second call the morning of Aug. 31. Southern Pines supplies electricity to the substation that powers the Colonial pipeline.

Mississippi Public Service Commissioner Mike Callahan said the U.S. Department of Energy called him on Aug. 31. Callahan said department officials said opening the fuel line was a national priority.

The article goes on to say that the linemen were working on restoring power to stations that supplied electricity to two rural hospitals. And the work required to get the pipeline up and running again threatened to knock out power to the only remaining hospital in the area on full power, Wesley Medical Center in Hattiesburg.

But just what was going on here? Cheney’s office wouldn’t talk. They referred the reporter to DHS. And they wouldn’t talk either.

Is this how the national disaster response system works? Calls go out from the Vice President’s office to local electric power utility operators giving national security directives on which power lines to get running first? Aren’t things a bit more systematized than that?

This is also pretty early in the crisis, August 30th, the day after the storm hit. The Veep’s office seemed really proactive about getting that pipeline flowing again. I trust it won’t seem too persnickety to note a certain contrast between the urgency of this response and that to the rest of the crisis in the region?

The article says that “substations were crucial to Atlanta-based Colonial Pipeline, which moves gasoline and diesel fuel from Texas, through Louisiana and Mississippi and up to the Northeast.” Here’s the map of the Colonial pipeline on the company’s website. (It basically goes from Texas to New Jersey.) And the Colonial website says the company runs the “world’s largest-volume refined petroleum products pipeline system.” So with that and just a quick bit of research I’ve done this evening, the pipeline does seem like a fairly big deal.

But why haven’t we heard more about this? At a minimum this seems like an important part of the story of what happened two weeks ago. But to the best of my knowledge it’s gone wholly unremarked in the major national dailies.

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