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Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Book Review: One Second After

There has been considerable talk in the media lately about the fragile and vulnerable nature of the US Power Grid. Janet Napolitano, Secretary of Department of Homeland Security, recently commented in her 'farewell' speech that "a large scale cyber attack is inevitable" and "it's a matter of when, not if." She went on to say that "an unprecedented natural disaster is also likely on the way." This past November 13-14, a massive test called "GridEX" was conducted involving several government agencies and various private entities. "GridEx" was a series of simulations designed to test America's readiness in the event of a cyber attack or physical threat to its electrical infrastructure.

Recently, National Geographic ran a TV movie called "American Blackout 2013". As of a couple weeks ago it was available to watch on youtube. "American Blackout 2013" was a fictional account of what happened to several people in various scenarios during a widespread failure of the US electrical grid. While the movie had several technical holes common to Hollywood productions, I thought it captured pretty well some of the interpersonal dynamics among the people involved.

The book "One Second After", by William R. Forstchen, takes the concept of a widespread electrical grid failure due to terrorism to the next level. In the National Geographic movie, where the computers that control the grid were hacked, everything running on batteries still worked. Cars still ran as long as they had gas, cell phones would still turn on, etc. In the book "One Second After", things were orders of magnitude worse. ALL solid state electronic devices were affected by a massive EMP (electromagnetic pulse) caused by a terrorist's nuclear bomb. Cars stopped running; cell phones quit; no radios, TV, or even land line phones were working. Planes fell out of the sky and crashed because of EMP induced control and instrument failures.

Those who have ever read the 1950's novel "Alas Babylon", which dealt with a fictional nuclear exchange between the US and Russia, will immediatly recognize elements of that writing style in "One Second After". Like "Alas Babylon", this book serves as a warning to the wise about an all-too-possible future. Indeed, the book contains a forward section by Newt Gingrich, and "was cited in Congress as a book all Americans should read" according to the blurb on the rear cover. Regardless of one's political persuasion and general opinion of the man, and his rather faulty description of what an EMP actually is, Mr. Gingrich makes some valid points in his Forward.

The story deals with a retired military man and recent widower living in North Carolina in a small town. John Matherson already had plenty to deal with raising his children alone and teaching at the local university. Then one afternoon the EMP hit. For some time people didn't realize the extent of what had actually happened. Cars simply stalled on the highway through town; the electricity quit and all telephones went dead - so there was no communication from "the outside". Gradually it dawned on people that something very serious was afoot. During the ensuing weeks, people ran out of food and medicine. Within days, people in hospitals and nursing homes died due to life support systems failing as generators - if still working - ran out of fuel. Criminals went out and stole food; junkies wanting a 'fix' stole medicines from the local nursing home. Without giving away the whole plot here, one can guess the story covered all the things that would likely happen to individuals, towns, and the country overall, during and after such a catastrophic event.

My 'Take-Away': Given the nature of my local community (it DOESN'T function AS a community with neighbors who are 'awake' and connected with each other), as well as my recent several months' work experience as a licensed nurse's aide in a long term care facility, both the movie and especially this book have certainly given me considerable pause for thought. Fully half the people I care for would NOT survive a week without electrical power, refrigeration, and medicines - all things supplied in one way or another via our nation's electrical grid. EVERY nurse, aide, EMT, paramedic, doctor, etc. would have the terrible moral decision to make between caring for family v.s. slogging it out as best as one can at the hospital, nursing home, etc. to care for patients and/or residents where they work. Everybody would have to make that universal decision as to how much they will do to help unprepared neighbors who come begging for a can of food, medicine, etc., as well as what they will do to defend their property against theft.

Truly, one owes to one's self to read "One Second After", think about one's own situation, consider what they would do in a grid-down disaster scenario, and HOPEFULLY make at least some rudimentary preparations.

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