The Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station, built upwind from the nation's sixth-largest city and plagued for years by regulator's safety concerns. It is the only nuclear plant in the world not near a large body of water.
People move to Phoenix bragging about the lack of blizzards, hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes. True enough. Yet they are moving into a place burdened by its own special hazards. They're the ones your real estate agent didn't mention; the ones that what is left of journalism rarely covers. That nobody talks about them besides -- I hope -- emergency planners, does not make them any less dangerous. Indeed, a case could be made that Phoenix is one of the highest-risk metro areas in the nation.
One of the most populous metropolitan areas in the nation has been built in a hostile desert. It's isolated, with limited highways, no passenger rail and surrounded by hundreds of miles of inhospitable, waterless badlands. Evacuation in an emergency would be impossible. The closest large cities -- Tucson and Las Vegas -- are as vulnerable as Phoenix. Gasoline must be brought in by pipelines from refineries hundreds of miles away. Water and the electricity for air conditioning depend on complex, vulnerable systems.
This harsh reality should have been brought home earlier in this decade, when, amidst brutal August heat, a gasoline pipeline broke; a year later, a mid-summer transformer fire threatened to shut down the power grid. The gas crisis was particularly frightening. Fights broke out at filling stations. People drove around in search of a tanker truck to follow. More inquisitive residents were surprised that such a large city has no refinery and is served by only two pipelines, one from the east, one from the west, built decades ago when Phoenix held a fraction of its current population.
There was a savage vibe in the hot streets. One that I had picked up on occasion years before, when I worked on the ambulance in the city's most dangerous areas. It was a vibe that said the mask of civilization could slip in an instant. Gasoline is the lifeblood, particularly for a place laid out in precisely the wrong way for a desert city: sprawling over 1,500 square miles, requiring endless single occupancy vehicle driving. Gasoline is the only way out in an emergency. Things could have gone very bad, very quickly. The same was true after the fire that spread from one transformer to another -- they were stacked smartly side by side -- until the metro area's power capacity had been badly wounded. At the worst time of year.
One had to ask: What would happen if the power went out for hours or days. How many would die? How long before panic, looting, insurrection? New Orleans was only special in that it held a large underclass and it was abandoned. Phoenix has the former already. Reaching it in a heat emergency would be a massive challenge. The situation would be made all the more lethal by the large number of vulnerable, older residents who have retired there.
It could be worse. Back in the 1960s, when Phoenix held about half-a-million people, it was never clear whether we would be a first-strike or a second-strike target. Tucson was definitely gone. It was surrounded by silos holding the Air Force's most powerful nuclear-tipped missiles, so the Soviets were going to take it out. Yet Phoenix in those days wasn't just a real-estate Ponzi scheme. It had two Air Force bases and a Naval Air Station, and held a substantial (hard as it is to believe now) cluster of defense industries. In any event, nobody really knew how, or if, the Soviet missiles would work. One might fall short, short enough to vaporize Phoenix. And 120 miles away, several scores of megatons would have gone off anyway. As Americans, we bore this without destroying civil liberties or making a near police state. But thinking people in Phoenix were very aware of its nakedness; at a time when Civil Defense officials elsewhere had plans to evacuate cities, Phoenix was stuck. I remember one water engineer musing that "all the Russians have to do is bomb the dams and we're dead."
Today's threats are less severe by comparison. But they may be more likely to erupt.
This nice, new-looking metropolitan area -- outside of the growing linear slums -- is downwind from the largest nuclear power plant in North America. (Who thought that was a good idea; and nuke plants use mucho water). It was one that for years was a bad boy in the eyes of federal regulators, although the newspapers always assured us that there was no safety hazard. We can only hope this is one example where our institutions did not lie to us and put us at risk.
As the Kookocracy protects gun rights, the biggest threat grows unchecked -- and it won't be addressed by superior firepower. All the cities in the South and Southwest are menaced by global warming. Which one will become uninhabitable by large numbers of people first? Atlanta, the Texas metros or Phoenix? The latter won't face the tropical diseases that will emerge in the Southeast (although Phoenix didn't have today's mosquito problem when I was a kid). It does face a tipping point when power and gasoline are too expensive. When too many people spread out over too much land becomes painfully unsustainable. When the carrying capacity -- long ago reached -- becomes too much to sweep under the rug of boosterism and sunshine. When the water Ponzi scheme finally collapses.
It's coming, especially thanks to years of corporate-sponsored delay in implementing measures that could have stopped the worst consequences of global warming. In the meantime, sleep with one eye open, "Valley." You are transient visitors to a hostile wilderness that has defeated the artifice of men before.
Addendum: A friend reminds me that the Salt River Valley once grew a considerable amount of food, and Phoenix had one of the world's largest stockyards, drawing on Arizona's vibrant cattle industry. Most of that was plowed under for subdivisions, where the denizens buy food that comes from a thousands-mile-long supply chain, highly vulnerable to energy prices and world instability.
Read other articles in the Phoenix 101 series here.