I just finished reading Ted Koppel's work of pre-Apocalypse nonfiction, Lights Out. Koppel is worried about cyber attacks on the country's electrical grid, which is definitely a justifiable concern. Hackers with evil intent do exist; the electrical grid is vulnerable. It's a patchwork of thousands of power generating systems that's been fragmented in odd ways in the past few decades.
At the same time, it's all tied together electronically to ensure that if a generator drops off line at one power plant, another generator will come on line at another to keep the overall amount of electricity coursing through the wires balanced. It's an odd mix of super smart and super stupid -- and from what Koppel describes a lot of the super stupid isn't in the computers or the generators; it's between the ears of the people managing it all. Too many of them have an almost religious faith in the "resiliency" of the grid. In short, it wouldn't take a whole lot of effort to take big chunks of the national electric grid down and keep it down for an extended period of time, possibly many months. All it would take is a deftly targeted attack on a few of the humongous transformers that step voltage down from the high-tension power lines (the 660,000 volt ones) to more usable voltages to be distributed on smaller lines. The humongous transformers tend to be custom made for specific installations, are difficult to transport to wherever they're going to be installed, and take many months to manufacture and deliver. Somewhere along the line Koppel started thinking about the vulnerability of the electrical grid, which led to a book asking when the lights go out what are we going to do?
Koppel starts off by asking the people who should have the answers: FEMA, Homeland Security, state and local government emergency preparedness personnel. As one might expect, he encounters a lot of vague bureaucratese where terms like "resiliency" get tossed around a lot and straight answers are really hard to come by. Every so often, though, he hits someone who's honest. And what is honest? Basically, if the power goes out and stays out for much over a week in places like New York City or Chicago, a whole lot of people are screwed. Current disaster preparedness tells people to have food and water for three days. Three days! When Hurricane Sandy hit, some areas were without power for ten days. It's not that uncommon for power outages to last for a week or more, especially following a natural disaster. In those cases, though, the areas without electricity go from being widespread to just a few spots here and there pretty quickly. So what happens when those three days are up, the water's still out for many blocks around you, the bodega down on the corner has run out of everything, and people are starting to panic because it's not just a few blocks or a few square miles that are without power but multiple states?
One person that spoke with Koppel said that the immediate most practical thing to do in urban areas was to call in the military to get emergency power to the water and sewer systems. If you can get the pumps running to get water to people, they can survive fairly well while various agencies work on getting food and medical supplies to people who need them. The biggest problem would be communication -- if the power is out, the grid is down, how do you get information to people so they don't panic? It's an interesting question. The book didn't provide an answer.
Koppel did talk with people in the "prepping" movement, including some of the big names in the business. Interestingly enough, the people who supply the individual preppers aren't really set up to deal with a major emergency themselves. They don't keep a lot of stock on their shelves; people do pay attention to expiration dates so no one wants to buy old MREs. The typical MRE has a shelf life of 5 years; the better bet is to get freeze-dried food (the dehydrated crap backpackers invest in before starting to hike the Pacific Crest Trail). Freeze-dried lasts up to 25 years. Of course, so do a lot of other dry foods. Lots of packaged foods like pastas and dry beans and rice have "best by" dates on them; those dates don't mean the food is no longer edible. It just means you should pitch it and buy new stuff from whoever is selling so they keep making money. Canned goods are little iffier; a lot depends on the specific product and how it was canned.
In any case, some individual "preppers" do seem to have a decent grasp of what it would take to muddle along without electricity. Koppel spoke with one guy who lives in St. Louis who also has a rural property. The country place is set up to be off the grid -- solar and wind power, for example -- and includes features like a man-made pond that's been stocked with pan fish. The fellow who owns it would like to live there full-time once he retires; his wife isn't quite so ready to give up the amenities that come with city life unless and until it actually is a matter of survival. Nonetheless, despite having through things through better than average, the man is making some of the same mistakes that always inspire me to laugh a bit scornfully: hoarding gasoline, for example. Way too many people don't realize gas can go bad pretty fast.
Koppel also found a few people who weren't preppers at all but just through personal choices and lifestyle would manage just fine if the lights went out. Not surprisingly, they already lived in rural areas, like a rancher in Wyoming.
Not surprisingly, the one group that is well-prepared to survive off the grid for long periods of time are members of the Church of Latter Day Saints. It wasn't exactly news that Mormons in general aren't going to worry when the shelves go empty at the closest Kroger. It's official church doctrine to be prepared. Church members are expected to have a well-organized pantry with enough edibles in it to last a minimum of 3 months, although a full year is the preferred target amount. There are guidelines as to how much of what you need to have for your family size; there are instructions on rotating things so nothing ever it hits an expiration date. What was news to me was learning just how much infrastructure the LDS church has in place to back up individual preparedness. The Mormons are remarkably well-organized. The lowest level of organization is, of course, the home. Each household is part of a ward (the equivalent of a parish maybe?), wards are organized into stakes, each stake has a bishop's storehouse. The storehouse can function like a food pantry -- families that fall on hard times can get vouchers (a bishop's recommendation) that allows them to go to the storehouse and get what they need. In a widespread emergency, the storehouse is the backup to the individual homes. The Mormons also draw on them when they participate in disaster relief: when there's a hurricane or a flood they'll load trucks with supplies to send to affected areas. In many cases the LDS is on the scene with relief supplies before the Red Cross or the government. (A small digression: Koppel heaps a fair amount of scorn on the Red Cross. In recent years it's become clear the national organization is far more interested in fund-raising than it is in doing any actual relief work.)
And how are the Mormons stocking those storehouses? Well, they have a food and other supplies system in place that's comparable to anything run by Walmart, including owning a trucking company. They have their own farms and dairies, canning plants, you name it. In ordinary times, they're selling on the open market what isn't needed to keep the storehouses stocked; in the event of a wide-spread disaster anything they grow or raise would go into the church's supply chain. I found myself thinking that maybe those nice young men, the "elders" going door-to-door trying to persuade people to read the Book of Mormon, should consider mentioning that a good way to survive the Zombie Apocalypse is by converting to Mormonism. If only they were willing to drink coffee. . .
So what are you going to do when the lights go out? I tend to agree with Koppel that it's not a matter of If, it's a matter of When. Obviously, how grim it would be hinges a lot on which part of the country gets hit hardest and what time of the year it is. The national grid isn't actually a national grid -- it's at least three separate ones -- so it's not like the entire country would go black at once. If the power goes out in the upper Midwest in July or August, it's not that big a deal. Refrigerated and frozen food is going to spoil, of course, but the weather isn't likely to kill you. If it's January, on the other hand, and your sole source of heat is furnace that requires electricity, you've got a problem. Conversely, no power in Texas in July or August would mean no air conditioning -- and heat stroke is going to do in anyone who's afraid to open windows. Every year old people die from heat stroke in urban areas because they're more afraid of burglars than they are of the heat.
And what about simple things like basic sanitation? How do you flush a toilet when there is no water? One of things they always recommend in prepping for a natural disaster (ice storms, hurricanes, whatever) is to fill your bathtub or other containers with water before the disaster hits. Well, a cyber attack on the electric grid isn't going to give any advance warning. If you don't have a container with some water stashed as part of routine household preparedness, you're out of luck. So maybe the first step in thinking about preparing for the lights going out would be to make sure you've got some water stashed -- you can go a long time without food or a functioning furnace, but you can't survive without water.