A Loss of Electricity
Two years ago my boiler stopped working just as the outside temperature plummeted to the single digits, leaving my family scrambling for a solution as our thermostat displayed 55 degrees and falling. Luckily a knowledgeable neighbor provided a quick fix until I could get my HVAC guy in, and all ended well, but the episode left me aware of just how unprepared I am to withstand even the shortest power outage, especially in the winter months.
Although numerous communities in the U.S. have suffered severe outages as a result of natural disasters, as a nation – with the exception of the short-lived Northeast blackout of 2003 that affected over 55 million people – the U.S. has managed to avoid the widespread calamity that Ted Koppel illustrates in his new book, Light’s Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath.
Poke around on-line about the electric grid and you’ll soon find commentary from the most extreme elements of our society (i.e., complete wack jobs). Fortunately, veteran journalist Ted Koppel’s voice lends a degree of sanity to the polarizing issue. Will his voice make any difference? Time will tell, though I think he’s done a great service to highlight to the general public just how vulnerable our electrical grid is to terrorism – most likely of the cyber variety. We’re talking potentially a hundred million people without power for weeks or months, a crippling of the U.S. economy and the U.S. military, and people’s worst instincts taking hold through looting and violence. (You know, the kind of scenarios we pay millions to see as long as they’re on the big screen and not happening in our own backyards.)
Koppel provides expert testimony from both in and out of the electric industry and the government agencies who are supposedly equipped to either handle a major crisis (FEMA) or prevent a crisis in the first place (DHS). (A word of caution: neither has a plan in place to respond to a major cyberattack.) When Koppel asks General Lloyd Austin of U.S. Central Command if there is a danger of a cyberattack taking out a major section of the U.S. electric grid, he answers, “It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when someone will try that.”
The words of a paranoid? We would do well to recall the domestic terrorist attack on a California substation in April of 2013 that knocked out ten transformers. Many think that this event was a dry run to something bigger, but with a cyberattack one doesn’t need AK-47s to inflict damage to the electrical grid – it can all be down remotely. As Koppel reports, there are nation states to be concerned about like China and Russia, but they have a limited desire to inflict damage on a country that could inflict as much damage in return. Of more concern is a country like North Korea who’s already demonstrated a desire to inflict damage to the U.S., who’s already hacked Sony, and who has absolutely nothing to lose. Of course, a cyberattack wouldn't need to be state-sponsored; terrorist organizations also pose a significant threat.
Light’s Out isn’t all doom and gloom (though it is, mostly). Koppel interviews a number of “preppers” – people who prepare for the worst through a variety of measures, including the storing of food, water, medicine, fuel and the like – who would likely be able to withstand an electrical outage for months. Yes, some of them are wack jobs, but many are just regular people who want to have a plan in place in case of a long-term loss of power. Even better prepared are the Mormons who – in addition to instructing personal actions – have a structural system in place that would help provide safety for its members in the event of a national disaster.
Where does that leave the rest of us? Koppel doesn’t delve into details, which is rather a shame, but there are countless resources on-line and in print that can help the average Joe become a little more prepared than he is currently. We're not talking silly duck and cover drills in the event of a nuclear explosion; we're talking sensible steps involving freeze-dried food, water storage and the like. If enough Americans do this, then some of the panic that might ensue after a significant loss of power can be avoided while responders attend to those who are most in need.
I’m going to devote a little time and a little money in 2016 to be a little more personally prepared, and I hope you consider doing so. Getting our politicians to prepare will be a whole other endeavor.