It's one thing when those of a prophetic bent foresee a coming "apocalypse," but another when something akin is seen by an icon of the mainstream media -- in this case, Ted Koppel (former anchor for Nightline).
You heard that right: in a new book, Lights Out, Koppel strikes an alarming, apocalyptic tone in describing not if but probably when a failure of our electrical grid will occur, putting millions, and perhaps tens of millions, perhaps everyone in the continental U.S. and Canada, in the dark.
We're not talking a 1965-style Great Eastern Blackout, or the one in 2003. We're talking about a failure in electrical power that would last for weeks or months, causing chaos, if not quite the apocalypse.
"Darkness," he begins the book. "Extended periods of darkness, longer and more profound than anyone now living in one of America's great cities has ever known. As power shuts down there is darkness and the sudden loss of electrical conveniences. As batteries lose power, there is the more gradual failure of cellphones, portable radios, and flashlights. Emergency generators providing pockets of light and power, but there is little running water anywhere. In cities with water towers on the roofs of high-rise buildings, gravity keeps the flow going for two, perhaps three days. When this runs out, taps go dry; toilets no longer flush. Emergency supplies of bottled water are too scarce for anything but drinking, and there is nowhere to replenish the supply. Disposal of human waste becomes a critical issue within days.
"Supermarket and pharmacy shelves are empty in a matter of hours. It's a shock to discover how quickly a city can exhaust its food supplies. Stores do not readily adapt to panic buying, and many city dwellers, accustomed to ordering out, have only scant supplies at home. There is no immediate resupply, and people become desperate."
The scene goes on a bit, describing how police lacking critical information (due to lack of radio contact) would have to swarm the streets "while residents found themselves without radio, TV, internet, text messaging, e-mails, and so forth."
If it was over not just a major city -- this hypothetical, some say inevitable, blackout -- but several states?
"Emergency supplies are sufficient only for a matter of days," writes Ted Koppel. "The assumption that the city, the state, or even the federal government has the plans and the wherewithal to handle this particular crisis is being replaced by the terrible sense that people are increasingly on their own. When the awareness takes hold it leads to a contagion of panic and chaos."
It's one reason we provide emergency supplies in a section of our bookstore and are carrying the book Get Prepared Now [see below]: whether a blizzard, ice storm, hurricane, quake, volcanic eruption, epidemic, or electrical collapse, things can devolve (spin downward) in a hurry. It doesn't hurt to have some supplies on hand -- not with an attitude of fear, no; but with prudent caution.
Didn't we all bear witness to how the "motor" of government seizes up during crises such as Katrina (and this only affected one sizeable city, and not even a large one).
Think of it: without fuel, how could trucks arrive with food, fuel, or anything else? Our infrastructure is what the TV anchorman describes as held together with a "tissue" of technology, now almost exclusively dependent on the internet, including the astonishingly complex system of generating and delivering electricity.
Yet, there are few safeguards in place, and scant regulation, he argues, taking the stance, despite the skepticism of some, that a total blackout could and may well occur.
We don't necessarily agree that cyber-terror is the likeliest cause of future events, though it may play a role. We think if and when major events come (we always use if), natural forces will be the main player. If it has to do with electricity, we think a major solar storm is more likely to extinguish electricity on a massive scale. Some executives believe that cyber-terror could never do this.
Koppel argues that taking down all or part of the three main grids -- yes, just three -- that tether society together (along with thousands of individual power generators and providers in the network) would "scatter millions of Americans in a desperate search for light, while those unable to travel would tumble back into something approximating the mid-nineteenth century."
This could happen from a cyber-attack by a tech-savvy nation, the detonation (perhaps from an offshore cargo ship) of a nuclear device above the grid system, sending down a damaging electromagnetic pulse, (something even North Korea and Iran may be capable of), or a cascading effect from a few local stations that fail. The rail system and air-traffic control networks would be finished.
Count the ways -- every hour -- that you depend on electricity.
We already see how criminal and terrorist organizations are hacking into networks used by the federal government.
"Without ready access to electricity, we are thrust back into another age -- an age in which most of us would lack both the experience and the resources to survive. Precisely how that happens is, ultimately, less important than how prepared we are for the consequences."
Some would call this "Chicken Little" fear. Others would call skepticism that such could happen as head-in-the-sand Pollyanna. You decide.
Americans would be startled, if not shocked, Koppel points out, at how little our own government can currently do to prevent a massive failure -- never mind if the disruption came by way of an electromagnetic pulse from a storm on the sun, which certainly can occur and which we will further explore soon.
In March of 1989 Hydro-Quebec, a publicly-owned utility, failed precisely because of a solar flare from the sun, and though no mega-event, it darkened all of Quebec. A few months later, another solar storm shut down the Toronto stock exchange. During an ice storm in 1998, a fifth of the work force in all of Canada (yes, a fifth) was immobilized for about a week -- and folks in Montreal had taken to breaking up and burning porches, decks, and furniture to fuel fireplaces. Just a single power line remained intact to provide power from the outside to the entire city. In 2012 a massive outage in India affected 620 million.
Some projections are so extreme, says Koppel, "as to effectively numb the brain. " To wit: a report by a congressional commission "estimating that only one in ten of us would survive a year into a nationwide blackout, the rest perishing from starvation, disease, or societal breakdown."
Some blunt conclusions? (We discuss such matters also in Tower of Light.)
"Virtually all of our civilian infrastructure -- including telecommunications, water, sanitation, transportation, and healthcare -- depends on the electric grid," said a bipartisan group of ten former national security, intelligence, and energy officials back in 2010. "The grid is extremely vulnerable to disruption by a cyber-or other attack. Our adversaries already have the capability to carry out such an attack. The consequences of a large-scale attack on the U.S. would be catastrophic for our national security and economy."
Outages could last for up to two years, said the report.
When Koppel asked Janet Napolitano, who once headed Homeland Security (currently president of the University of California), what she thought the chances are that someone or something could "knock out" one of America's power grids, she said, "very high -- 80 percent, 90 percent. You know, very, very high."
Yet our legislators have done little, nor have cost-conscious power executives. One critical analysis by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission concluded, says the famous newsman, that if nine of America's most critical substations were knocked out simultaneously, "it could cause a blackout encompassing most of the United States." Imagine.
Fear not. God takes care of His own. So does Jesus. So does His mother. But neither hide one's head in the sand.
-- Michael H. Brown, 11/9/15