After reading the book One Second After we had an interesting discussion over on JoeUser about the subject.
One user said that humans had adapted and were far too enlightened today to revert to violence and mayhem in the absence of our modern conveniences.
So let’s walk through the EMP scenario:
Day 1: July Year 200x
5 container ships in the gulf of Mexico fire medium range SCUD missiles high into the atmosphere until it reaches far above Kansas and other states. On board are 45KT nuclear warhead. It explodes creating EMP that takes out all of the integrated circuits in the United States.
That means anything electronic that hasn’t been hardened is going to be ruined. That means your computers, TVs, cars, home electronics, breaker box, phones, radios, cell phones. It also means the power companies, their generators, the backup generators at hospitals, nursing homes, etc.
All of the farms and their harvesting equipment is dead. The trucks that move food to the cities are ruined. The trains that move freight around the country are inoperable.
Every airplane flying crashes. All planes on the down are ruined.
The only thing working are US conventional forces that happened to be hardened against EMP (which means quite a few of them). Some cars stored in underground parking garages would probably work depending on the proximity.
There’s no fall out. Nobody dies from the attack directly.
With power out people’s fridges are DOA. With no working cars, people don’t go to work. In the country and in the suburbs, people take the food out of their refrigerators and freezers before it “goes bad” and have BBQs. It’s a fun time.
People who were driving somewhere are mostly able to make it to town. A few people die of heat stroke on their journeys. In the deep south, particularly Florida, there are a number of deaths due to the heat since air conditioning is out.
In the cities, looting begins quite quickly. The police can’t do much since they’re on foot or on horse.
We know this sort of thing because we have seen what happens during extended power outages. Of course, in those cases cars, cell phones, and other crucial devices still worked but there was still massive looting in the large cities.
Local agencies really don’t know what’s going on since there is no communication. No cell phones. No radio. No land lines. The grid is gone. There are spare parts but no where near enough to fix it all and because of the nature of the electrical grid, all the holes have to be plugged for the juice to flow again. And even if they had enough parts, how do they transport them? No trucks. No cars.
International relief from Japan, China, Canada (though most of Canada is taken out too), Mexico, Europe begins but it’ll be slow going. Food shipments can reach the coast in a couple of days but getting it inland will be a major problem as the vehicles will have to be transported in along with parts to try to get the railroads working again (along with teams to get dead trains off the rails).
In the subs, the party is over. It ain’t funny now. People are finishing off what was in their refrigerator. Most people still have some food in the cupboard.
Stores start rationing their supplies. People are still using money (at least, those who keep cash). A bottle of water is $20. How much cash do you keep in your house?
In the cities, riots have broken out with widespread destruction. Being July, it’s hot and dry. Fires from the riots start to spread.
End of Week 1:
By now, most people in the subs have run out of food they would normally remotely consider eating. Looting at the local Walmart and grocery stores begins as people simply take what they need.
Remember, people aren’t hearing anything from the authorities. There are no working TVs. No working radios. The handful of police are walking in the subs.
If you live in the suburbs, take a close look around. How would the police reasonably patrol your city without cars?
Meanwhile, people in nursing homes have started dying enmasse. Without refrigeration drugs quickly go bad. Anyone requiring help breathing or anything else has already died.
People with type 1 diabetes are starting to see the writing on the wall.
Meanwhile, the first container ships of relief have reached San Francisco, Seattle, LA, San Diego, Houston, Miami, Boston, NY, Washington, Raleigh. Lots of food, medicine, some parts, lots of vehicles.
Unfortunately most of those cities are in utter pandemonium. In the south, tens of thousands have already died from heat. In 2003, when there was a heat wave in France, 14800 people died. They didn’t lose power, they just didn’t have air conditioning. In Florida, the death toll is skyrocketing quickly. Same in most of the other southern states.
End of Week 2:
People are starting to die of dysentery from eating bad food, drinking bad water. Many have left the suburbs to head to rural areas where they think there is food (they’re wrong, harvest won’t happen for months, industrialized food processing involves a lot of transportation between the farms and the slaughter houses).
The typical American family, now out of food and with no access to clean water is starting to get pretty desperate.
What? Only 2 weeks? How much food do you have in your house right now? Go check. I’ll wait….
Okay back? So how much is in your pantry? How long would it last you? If you knew at the start, you might have rationed it better. But you didn’t.
Millions of Americans are wishing they had put those steaks and hamburgers and hotdogs in their basements in the cooler temperatures. Others are wishing they had salted them heavily and cooked them well done to store for the long haul.
In the cities on the coast, power is restored via backup generators relatively close to shore. However, within 10 miles from the harbor, death is everywhere. Don’t agree?
Ever been to San Francisco? LA? New York City? 14 days have passed. Where would you have gone? The smart ones, who are able to, would have found their way to the harbors and waited for air lifts of food and such. But most would probably not think about that.
Meanwhile, armed thugs are starting to systematically go through every building and house looking and taking what they need.
End of Week 3
Starvation is starting to become a real problem. If your local law enforcement had a clue, they had already gotten themselves and helpful citizens around to the stores to gather up supplies to start rationing it.
At this point, martial law has been declared by any competent city government. Some cities decide that, for the public good of course, that all community food will be collected and distributed equally to everyone. In other places, large armed mobs are violently taking what is needed to survive.
Are you a survivalist? Got all your supplies right? Got MREs in the basement. You have an AK47 that you managed to get quietly at a gun show. Your kids know how to use the two shot guns. You’ve been prepared for this day right? Great. You’re about to die.
You see, you might be able to keep a few people away. But word got around that you have supplies because you’re that guy who everyone knew was expecting to “bug out” one day when the government and black helicopters came. You might be able to take out a few people but 200+ Nope. You’re going to take a lot of them out but they’re going to come in, kill you, your family, and your supplies.
What? Don’t agree? People won’t do that? Again: Other than on the coast (in some major cities near harbors anyway) you’ve heard and seen nothing from the government other than the occasional Black Hawk flying around. No TV. No phones. No radios.
A few people have managed to dig up old HAM radios and they are getting distant broadcasts of reassurance but it’s clear that nothing’s coming any time soon if you live significantly inland, especially if you don’t live in a densely populated area.
It’s triage at this point and the rural and suburbs areas are simply too spread out. Unfortunately, in the cities, fires have consumed much of them. Anyone strong enough to get out of there has which further distributes the population.
A few older cars start showing up again on the roads as collectables and just old junkers are fixed up and are able to drive because they didn’t have electronics in them.
End of the first month:
A network of outposts are re-established in most large and medium sized cities. Medium sized cities are faring a bit better. Kalamazoo Michigan, Santa Cruz California, and other cities of this kind are doing okay now as convoys are starting to show up.
Really large cities away from the coast are dead at this point. Sorry Omaha, there’s nobody home anymore.
The Second Month:
Now is when the death toll really starts to go up. First, you have about 5% of the population that was on medication to control their mental states. This is now gone. They will mostly die off this month or take out a few others in the process.
Nearly everyone with Type 1 diabetes has died.
Virtually who requires assisted care at this point has died.
Millions of children under 2 have died. Why? Do you have any children? If you’re not nursing them, how are you feeding them at this point?
There are not many domesticated dogs left that haven’t been freed by owners.
The number of deer left that are near people has diminished to the point of being difficult to find. Same with geese, ground hogs, rabbits, etc.
Most cities of any decent size now have an outpost re-established with convoys of food now arriving. However, it’s starting to become a real problem because, well it turns out that the US and Canada supply a significant chunk of the world’s food. 47% of the world’s Soy beans are produced in the United States. 86% of the world’s corn. The bulk of the world’s wheat.
It’s during this second month that the food shipments to the United States are going to start to dry up as hunger starts to become a significant problem in China, Japan, and other countries that have to import food. The US and Canada make up 20% of the world’s food exports and if you count only basic foods the percentage nearly doubles.
The world has its first universal consensus: Oh shit.
It’s at about this time that those who were celebrating in the streets about the downfall of the great satan are starting to get the first thought that yes, they’re going to die too. North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Pakistan, and many other countries are about to see starvation on a level that has never been seen before.
By contrast, Europe is doing okay. Not great. But okay. Their economies are in ruins but they’re not going to die enmasse.
In Japan, where starvation is a serious concern, they and Korea have enough money to pay top dollar for the dwindling import food supply. Russia, unfortunately, is about to have a very rough year.
Needless to say, the food aid shipments to the United States are starting to dwindle. Western Europe, particularly Great Britain, Spain, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Netherlands are still sending food shipments.
If you’re on the East coast in a secure area, you’re in good shape. If you’re on the west coast, most of you are going to die.
The population of the United States is starting to take on the same appearance it did in 1909.
Here is what it looked like in the year 2000.
8% of the poulation was over 70. Nearly all of them have died.
3% of the population is under 4. Nearly all of them have died.
Urban populations of the United States have had staggering death tolls, particularly those not near the coasts.
Anyone requiring medication that needed to be refrigerated in order to live (anti-rejection drugs, insulin, various heart medications, for instance) has died. Easily 10% of the population on top of the above.
Around 20% of the population has starved.
Another 10% in the south who are living in places that were uninhabitable without modern technology have died. Think LA is nice? Imagine it without water. Any water.
In fact, if you live in California, take a look around. Where does your water come from? Most of the population of Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico and parts of Utah have died.
Power is starting to get restored due to generators and the government now had a decent supply of cars. Fixing the grid has become a priority.
While heat has killed millions in the south, we’re now getting near November. It’s starting to get cold.
The fourth month
I tell people who come and interview that Michigan’s southern part is about the same latitude as Northern California. Winters in the upper part of the United States and lower Canada aren’t that bad – if you have heat.
But we don’t have heat. Natural gas has to be pumped and pumped through a huge network across the country. When power goes out, even for a few days, a lot of infrastructure falls apart. New York’s subways, for example are gone. Much of Chicago has flooded too. Those who have enough propane will be okay, for awhile (at least until armed thugs come and take it).
By this point, restoring natural gas is not going to be a simple matter of restoring power. Ever wondered how natural gas gets to your house? It’s all repairable but it will take time and unfortunately, a lot of that expertise in people has died or is otherwise unavailable. That means bringing people in which will take more time.
If you live in northern states at this point, and you haven’t starved to death, you’re probably going to start dying of exposure.
But that’s a gift compared to what people still struggling to make it in warmer areas as we get reintroduced to cholera, TB, and diarrhea become major problems.
In fact, in 1900 the #1 cause of death in the United States was pneumonia. The #3 was diarrhea. That’s right. The runs killed more Americans than Heart disease, cancer, strokes, etc. And this November, it returns from retirement as people, without proper sanitation, start to die off from all kinds of things that were previously unheard of.
In fact, as November closes, the United States has reverted to a third world country. No, that’s not fair. Third world countries usually have electricity and their inhabitants usually know how to start a fire. Do you know how to start a fire without matches and such? Remember watching Survivor and laughing at them? They were in pretty good conditions to get a fire going. You, by contrast, are wet, cold, weakened, and not sure if it’s even a good idea to start a fire because, well, what are you going to do with it? There’s little food.
On the west coast, food shipments have dropped to a trickle. LA, Seattle, San Fran, it’s not a fun time there now.
One Year later
The grid is re-established in the midwest, the east coast, and much of the south. It’s partially re-established on the west coast thanks to help from South Korea, China, and Japan. Thanks guys. We appreciate it even if most of us are dead.
So what’s the death toll? Conservatively, you’re looking at 40% of the population of the US and Canada has died. That’s probably a best case scenario if food and equipment shipments from the rest of the world come in quickly.
A smart (well not really smart because the states that sponsor terrorists have died off due to the unintended consequences) terrorist would have also zinged Japan, South Korea, the Chinese east coast, and western Europe. If that happened, you would be looking far higher deaths everywhere as there would be no relief coming in.
The population of the United States today is over 300 million people. In 1900 it was 76 million. The biggest reason for the increase isn’t due to birth rate but rather the massive decline of the death rate. And remember, they had infrastructure back in 1900. We’d be worse off than they were because they knew how to live back then.
How many people know how to can food? How many modern Americans know how much wood to cut to burn? How many Americans live in places where they need an elevator, as a practical matter, to get to where they live?
Heck, how many Americans are simply living today because they have access to all kinds of medical technology? How many Americans are living in places that can only be inhabited thanks to modern technology? Most of the south west was a barren desert until electrical pumps became possible. Much of the south wasn’t, as a practical matter, livable until air condition.
Also, consider our immune systems of today versus what it was 100 years ago. Our sterilized world has made us very vulnerable to the bacteria and viruses that lurk just outside our electrified civilization. And they would be back to visit within weeks.
Is what I describe realistic? Nobody really knows. There are studies out there. The book One Second After is a bit more dire than I think it would be. And it may turn out that our infrastructure is tougher than it seems or that the types of nuclear warheads that an Iran or North Korea could produce aren’t powerful enough to cause the necessary EMP.
But what is so frightening is how vulnerable we are. It wouldn’t take much of a shove to bring down the electrical grid. You could still end up with a situation where 10% of the American population (30 million) die simply by screwing up the electrical grid for a couple months.
Do I think this will happen? Probably not. I have a lot of faith in humanity. But when one considers the things that we worry about – global warming comes to mind, it amazes me how unconcerned people are at how easily disrupted our modern lives could be given how dependent we are on our technology today.
a couple of items from the www
Multiple reports and briefings associated with this effort have been produced by the EMP Commission including an Executive Report (PDF, 578KB) and a Critical National Infrastructures Report (PDF, 7MB) describing findings and recommendations.
I did not read the comments, but the scenario described is fascinating in a macabre sort of way. I hope we dont have to test it out, but unfortunately I think it will be tried eventually.
Actually, for reasons listed in the comments that I don't have time to dig up, such a scenatio is highly unlikely:
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