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Surviving an EMP

Nov 27, 2016 0 comments

In his book, "One Second After" author William Forstchen paints an incredibly real picture of what life in a post-EMP America could look like. Staged in a small town, surrounded by mountains, the people of the town had to come to grips with the many problems faced by their technology suddenly coming to a stop and having to live in a world without electricity. They are faced with disease, lack of medicines, starvation and attacks by marauding bands that had turned to cannibalism.

This story has gained such credibility that it has been cited on the floors of Congress and the corridors of the Pentagon. Some have called it a book all Americans should read. Why? Because the author faced a very real threat that is facing us as a nation and did an incredible job of placing us right in the middle of that disaster.

The book is extremely well thought out, showing the various problems that the local community had to face. Death and disease are talked about in detail, as well as starvation and lack of medicine. The locals work to find ways of surviving, rationing what food they have, finding ways of rebuilding their local infrastructure and defending themselves against attack.

Is an EMP attack by one of our many enemies realistic? I'd have to say yes. Although the United States military is still the strongest on Earth, strength can be measured in many ways. Our military depends highly on technology and if that technology were to be taken away from them, our lives would be at risk.

In fact, I'd have to say that an EMP is probably one of the few attacks that any country could bring against the United States, and expect to win. Even small countries, like Iran and North Korea could effectively defeat us with only a couple of nuclear armed missiles. Once we fell victim to their attack, our ability to counterattack would be all but eliminated. Yes, our Navy could attack, as well as forces that we currently have overseas; but that's about it.

The technology to attack us in this manner readily exists. In fact, a SCUD missile, fired from the deck of a freighter in the Gulf of Mexico, would be enough to shut down the electronics in the majority of the country. Two SCUDs armed with nuclear warheads could shut down the whole country. Considering that the SCUD is essentially World War II technology, it wouldn't take much for our enemies to accomplish this attack.

Even if our military did manage a successful counterattack, that wouldn't leave us any better off back here at home. The damage caused by the EMP would be all but unrepairable, at least... in the time we would have available.

According to the report of the EMP commission, 90% of all Americans would die, mostly of starvation, within the first year. Since the fastest that repairs to the electric grid could be made would be a year, we would literally be in a national race against death.

The Attack

EMP, or electromagnetic pulse, is a byproduct of a nuclear explosion, first observed when the very first nuclear explosive test was conducted during World War II. At that time, EMP wasn't much of an issue, as the electronics of the day were driven by vacuum tubes. The EMP couldn't harm them. But as solid-state electronics became the norm, the risk of EMP grew.

A high altitude nuclear test conducted in the 1960s showed the first inkling of the effects of an EMP. That test was held over the Northern Pacific Ocean, about 500 miles north of Hawaii. Even though it was far enough away that Hawaii shouldn't have received any effect from the explosion, the EMP from that bomb put out streetlights, destroyed electronics and even put a microwave communications center out of business. This was our first real experience with EMP.

Little testing has been done since then, mostly due to the reduction in nuclear testing. So, much of our data on EMP dates back to that test. However, the EMP commission did do some non-nuclear EMP testing during the process of their investigations, which became part of their report.

A true EMP attack would involve a nuclear explosion above the earth's atmosphere. The size of the nuclear device wouldn't be as important as its altitude and position above the country. These two factors are important because EMP is strictly line of sight.

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As we can see from this map, at an altitude of 300 miles, an EMP over the central United would affect the entire country. The effects would be felt all the way from Maine to California, from North Dakota to Texas. Much of Mexico and Canada would be affected as well; but if someone is willing to take out the Untied States, they probably won't mind taking out our neighbors as well.

So, what will the EMP do?

At the altitude necessary for a successful EMP attack, there is no atmosphere to speak of. That means that there is nothing to convert the energy of the explosion to mechanical energy as a blast wave. So the entire force of that nuclear explosion will go out as electromechanical energy. Passing through the upper atmosphere, it will strip electrons off of atoms, actually increasing the amount of electrical charge available. This will rain down on the surface of the planet, striking everything.

You and I won't notice this shower of electrons; but our electronic equipment will. The amount of electrical energy directed at them by the EMP will be far greater than that of a lightning strike. That massive electrical surge will destroy almost all electronic equipment it comes into contact with.

There will be exceptions and I'll talk about those in a minute. But first, we need to finish talking about the destruction that the EMP will cause. There are two ways in which an EMP can enter into and attack electrical equipment. The first is by direct radiation. This is the electrical energy, essentially overcharged radio waves, hitting that equipment. Since it is like radio waves, any wires attached to that equipment will help to capture the electrical energy, like an antenna, and direct it into the equipment. Once there, it will fry all solid-state electronics.

So, our computers, landline telephones, entertainment centers and most industrial machinery will be hit by a huge electrical spike. More than they can handle. Some might survive that first wave of the attack, but that won't be all. There is a second wave as well.

Our country is crisscrossed by thousands of miles of electrical wires. Electrical power lines, telephone lines, even cable television lines are strung on poles, bringing the marvels of electricity into every home and business. That network of wires will act as a gigantic antenna, attracting and absorbing whatever electricity doesn't directly strike electronic devices. Once in that network of wires, it will create a massive voltage surge, ten times greater than any lightning strike could cause; and it will be nationwide.

That surge will enter into buildings across the country, attacking equipment that may not have been ruined by the initial wave of the attack. So, equipment in metal buildings, which might otherwise have survived, will be hit by that surge, blowing it out. Oh, and surge protectors won't be enough to protect that equipment.

Within a blink of an eye, pretty much all the electronics in the United States will cease to function. Oh, there might be a few government and military installations that survive, but few of those are hardened against EMP. No, the government will suffer along with everyone else; except what is in hardened shelters.

The electric grid will be the worst. Every transformer in the thousands of substations we have will probably be ruined by the EMP. In addition, there's a good chance that our ability to produce electric power will be destroyed. All of these sites are connected to the grid, so the massive surge along the electrical lines will short out transformers and generators alike.

Of all the damage, this is the most serious. The transformers in the substations are all custom built by just a few manufacturers worldwide. There aren't spares laying around in a warehouse somewhere. They would have to be built. That would take over a year. So, even if everything else could be fixed quicker, we would be a year or more without electricity. One year in which we would have to do things like they did in the 1800s.

What Will Survive?

Surprisingly, there will be things that manage to survive the EMP. Not all electronics will be destroyed, although enough will be, that it will seem that everything has been destroyed. Nevertheless, a fair amount of things will still be in operation. However, how useful they will be is another thing entirely.

It is common knowledge that a Faraday Cage will protect electronics form an EMP. Since the EMP acts much like radio waves, it can't really pass through metal, but is instead absorbed by metal. So, if an electronic device is inside of a metal enclosure, but insulated from that enclosure, the EMP can't get to it. This could potentially make a lot of electronics devices survive the attack.

One of the surprising conclusions to come out of the EMP commission's studies is that most cars will survive the EMP. They tested a wide variety of cars and the only failures were that a few of the cars stalled, but restarted without any problem.

The question in my mind on that is what direction did the EMP strike the cars from in that test. Their report doesn't tell us that. If the EMP struck the cars from the front or sides, I can see how the car's electronics would be protected by the body of the car. But if the EMP struck from the top, there's a possibility that it could enter through the windshield, striking the mass of wires that are underneath the dashboard of a modern car.

While the car's computer is usually not under the dashboard, but rather under the hood, the antenna effect comes into play here. If the EMP came though the windshield and was absorbed by the wires under the dash, it would reach the computer and fry it. So, even though their test results state that cars will survive an EMP, there is some risk that they won't.

This brings to light another mode of transportation which may survive, that is airplanes. In One Second After, the airplanes fell out of the sky, when their electronics were destroyed and the pilots lost control of them. But an airplane is a fairly good Faraday Cage; and although it has windows, they are small. This gives the airplanes a chance at survival.

Another surprise is that our cell phones and some other small electronics might end up surviving. Those are small enough that they won't absorb much of the EMP. Nor is there the antenna effect to worry about. So, even though we won't have phone service, we may still be able to use the local apps on our phones.

Another thing that will clearly survive the EMP attack is the massive amount of electronics stored in warehouses across the country. Most warehouses are metal buildings, making them, by definition, Faraday Cages. If the electronics in those warehouses are still in their boxes, they will be insulated from the building, so they will be protected. This might become the basis for rebuilding our society. But the big problem will be in getting power to those electronics.

Finally, one truly surprising thing that will survive an EMP is solar panels. Oh, they will suffer some damage, but that damage will only degrade them about 5% to 10%. That still leaves them with the capability to produce enough power to charge a battery backup system and provide power to your home.

Surviving the Aftermath of the EMP

Of all the survival scenarios we face, surviving the aftermath of an EMP will probably be one of the most difficult. This is the quintessential self-reliance survival scenario. The loss of electricity will cause the entire infrastructure that we all count on to fail. Oh, we may still be able to pump gas for our cars, if we have a manual pump and a friend at the gas station; but what about when he runs out of gas? The trucks won't be delivering more because the pumps to pump the gas into the trucks won't have power.

In fact, there will probably be countless resources that will go to waste at that time, simply because of the lack of being able to get them from where they are, to where they are needed. Our supply chain is so convoluted, with things crisscrossing the country, that getting things to the right place will be impossible. So in some areas they will have an overabundance of one resource, but be lacking everything else they need to survive.

This will cause a lot of unprepared people to die off. Basically, the deaths will occur in three waves:

  • Those that die due to lack of medication
  • Those that die due to plague
  • Those that die due to starvation

About the only people who can be sure of surviving are those who are self-sufficient. More than anything, this means that they have the capability of producing their own food. Whether that is through a vegetable garden or through raising your own rabbits to eat, the biggest need will be to have food.

Of course, anyone who has food will need to protect their food stocks, or they won't have them for long. People will become desperate, looking for anything they can get. Some will gather together in gangs, attacking homes and homesteads in search of food. Others may very well turn to cannibalism. Food stocks that are unprotected will be stolen and the families who own them might be killed.

I realize this sounds a bit extreme, but the reality is that the aftermath of an EMP would be about as extreme a situation as we could face. If there is anything that could cause a breakdown of society, as people came to grips with the situation, this would be it.

When we're talking self-sufficiency in this case, we're talking self-sufficiency in all aspects. Ideally, you will want to form a survival community of like-minded people, so that you can share survival tasks, as well as the huge task of defending yourselves. Of all the survival scenarios I can think of, the aftermath of an EMP, with all the social turmoil that will happen, is probably the one in which you need a survival team the most. Being in a remote area will help as well, as there will be less people around to see what you have. That will help to reduce attacks on your group.

A homestead or a couple of adjoining homesteads out in the country will be ideal. If you can find someplace where there are a number of people with homesteads, at least most of whom are survivalists, you will have an almost ideal situation. About the only thing that could make that better is to be living in an area where the terrain works to make it hard to get to you, so that it will be easier to defend yourselves.

Without electricity, you'll have to revert to doing everything the old ways, using manual power or animal power. That means you should learn how to do those things now, before the need for them arises, as well as having the necessary equipment to do things those old ways.

Of course, if you have solar panels, you will have some electricity available to you. If you build a Faraday Cage and store some electronics in it, you will have electronics to use, when everyone else doesn't. Storing spare radios, telephones and computers will make it possible for you to use these items, recharging them off of your solar panels. Check out my article on Building a Faraday Cage for more information on this important area of prepping for an EMP.

Another thing to store in your Faraday Cage is a spare computer, the electronic modules and any sensors for your vehicles. That way, even if they are damaged by the EMP, you can still make your car operable once again, by changing out those parts. Then, if you have a source of gasoline, you'll the ability to use your vehicle.

Stockpiling for the EMP

While the ability to grow your own foodstuffs will be critical for surviving the aftermath of the EMP, how well you stockpile supplies will also be important. Obviously, you'll need to stockpile food, as well as a whole lot more. City water probably won't be flowing, so you'll need water. A stockpile of gasoline will make it possible to use your car or truck. Seeds will be critical, so that you can keep your vegetable garden growing. So will medical supplies to take care of your family.

One of the biggest issues here is one of time. I mentioned earlier that it takes one year to build the transformers needed for our electrical substations. But, there will be so many of those transformers needed, that there's no way they will be finished in a year. It may take several years to replace them all.  That means that the only people who will have electricity in a year will be those living in areas that the government prioritizes to receive power, such as Washington, DC.

Just getting electricity won't solve the problem either. Once an area has electricity, it will be able to start putting things back together. Factories will need to be cleaned up, repaired and put back into operation. Sources of supply for those factories will need to be located as well. Since most of those aren't local, there's a very good chance that parts won't be available when the factories open.

Food distribution may be in a little better shape, at least if they can get fuel to the farmers and truckers. But, even then, it will take months to get the farms running again and food being harvested for distribution.

Why do I mention all this? Because it makes it clear that a year's supply of food won't be enough to get you through the aftermath of an EMP. Chances are that you'll need to be able to supply yourself with food for at least a few years and maybe even longer. About the quickest that any food distribution will be in place is after a year and a half, and that will only be to limited areas.

Of course, the more food production you have, the less food storage you need. But even then, it is a good idea to have a healthy supply of food on-hand, to ensure that you have something to eat if animals or people ravage your garden.

The second thing you need to concern yourself with is water. There's no way that you can stockpile enough water to last you for a couple of years. So, you'll need some alternate water source; actually several. You won't know if your alternate will keep working until you go through the EMP and see the results. So, have several sources you can use, preferably without needing electric pumps. That means a well may not be a good source of water, unless you have a manual pump and the well is shallow enough that the manual pump can suck water out of your well.

Then there's the issue of heating your home. Unless you live in the south, where the weather never reaches freezing, you'll need to be able to heat your home through the winter. For most, that means using a fireplace or wood-burning stove. These age old solutions still work today as long as you have a source of fuel for them. Take a look at my article on The Cheapest Heating Fuel Around for ideas on how you can save money on stockpiling firewood for your home.

Of course, these three areas only scratch the surface of what you should stockpile to survive the aftermath of an EMP. I'm not going to repeat it here, but you can count on needing just about anything that I or anyone else has written about as part of prepping and stockpiling.

The thing is that we won't be able to count on our normal sources of supply for anything. Other than local inventory, the entire distribution system will probably come to a complete standstill. Oh, some of it might keep going for a few weeks, but when fuel and supplies becomes scarce, that will be the end of it. Refineries require a huge amount of electrical power, so until the electricity can be turned back on, they won't be able to make more diesel for the trucks.

Dave Steen

About The Author: Dave is a 58 year old survivalist; father of three; with over 40 years of survival experience. He started young, learning survival the hard way, in the school of hard knocks. Now, after years of study, he's gray-haired and slightly overweight. That hasn't dimmed his interest in survival though. If anything, Dave has a greater commitment to survival than ever, so that he can protect his family. Click Here To Read More About Dave


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