Tornado Risk Seen for Social Security Project

The recent outbreak of powerful and deadly tornadoes across the United States raises a question: Should data centers be engineered to survive stronger wind storms? Curiously, the Social Security Administration has moved in the other direction.

The recent outbreak of powerful and deadly tornadoes across the United States raises a question: Should data centers be engineered to survive stronger wind storms? Curiously, the Social Security Administration has moved in the other direction. The SSA has elected to build its new $800 million data center to withstand wind speeds of only 90 miles an hour, rather than the 120 miles an hour standard common in most mission critical facilities.

The issue was raised in an internal review (PDF) of  the project by the SSA's Office of the Inspector General,which noted consultants from Fortress International Group had flagged the structural designs for wind speed as a problem, suggesting that they be strengthened to protect against winds of 120 to 180 miles per hour. The agency disagreed, "stating that current specification for wind speed of 90 MPH meets International Building Code Standards, and it is unnecessary to exceed these standards any further."

But data centers are not ordinary buildings, bearing the responsibility to protect sensitive personal and financial data for customers. That's especially true for the new Social Security data center, which will support the delivery of $700 billion in payments annually to more than 56 million Americans.

The new facility is scheduled to be built in Frederick County, Maryland, a state that has a history of tornadoes reaching a strength of F2, with wind speeds of up to 157 miles an hour.  Maryland also has periodically been affected by hurricanes, which can bring winds of 75 miles per hour and beyond.

Fortress vice president Eric Maxfield told Federal Computer Week that if a tornado or hurricane with winds exceeding 90 miles per hour should strike SSA's data center, the damage to the building could be catastrophic. "It fails,"Mayfield said. "The roof comes off, rain comes in, and everything is destroyed."

Nearly two years after $500 million in stimulus funding was earmarked to build a new data center for the Social Security Administration, the project  is already a year behind schedule and won’t be operational before 2016. In the meantime, the agency is trying to extend the life of a problem-plagued 30-year-old facility.

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