Whenever the left-wing media wants to conjure up an image of Republican failure and incompetence, they point to Hurricane Katrina and the days it took the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to respond in any effective manner.
Forget for the moment the fact that President Bush and his team were hampered in their efforts to provide emergency assistance by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Bianco (both Democrats), and the fact that New Orleans actually had plans to evacuate the city in the event of a major hurricane that Nagin failed to implement.
Katrina was an afternoon thunderstorm compared to what could hit the United States in the near future.
After three days of table-top exercises last week in and around Washington, DC to simulate the impact of a major solar event or a nuclear electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack, officials and experts concluded that our nation is woefully unprepared to handle the aftermath of such an event. And unlike a major hurricane, our nation's leaders would have just minutes of warning before it occurred, making evacuation of vulnerable populations impossible.
As I explained in last week's column, experts have been warning for some time that a major geomagnetic event or a nuclear EMP attack would mean "TEOTWAWKI" -- The End Of The World As We Know It.
But the table-top exercises conducted last week under the auspices of National Defense University and the state of Maryland's Emergency Management Agency, provided dramatic new evidence of our nation's woeful lack of awareness and preparedness for handling the aftermath of such an event.
"This is the potential catastrophic incident," said Michael Fisher, the head of Maryland's Emergency Management Agency (MEMA). "It's not a snow storm, it's not a rain event, it's not a building that had some bricks fall off when the earth shook. This is a potential catastrophic event that will change life as we know it."
Fisher cited the panic that gripped the city of Baltimore over the summer during the mild earthquake that hit Virginia, several hundred miles to the south. To counter the hysteria, MEMA used Twitter, Facebook, radio, and television to calm the population, and things gradually returned to normal.
But in the event of a major geomagnetic event or an EMP attack that takes down the power grid, none of those means of communicating with the public will be available.
"After a few days, not only are folks going to begin to take matters into their own hands, but the depth and breadth of our first responders -- that system is going to fail, also," he said.
In other words, there will be no going back to the way things were before. The snow will not melt, the sun won't come out, the flood waters won't recede, and help will not be on the way. Americans will be on their own, just as during the days of the Wild West.
One of the most dramatic impacts of a major geomagnetic event or a nuclear EMP will be on law and order. "Police officers have told us they would just go home to take care of their own families," said Dr. Richard Andres, an analyst with the National Defense University.
MEMA's Mike Fisher said his agency needs to start planning today to identify emergency supplies, back-up generators, and to organize staging areas for police and fire fighters who will have no means of communicating with each other beyond the human voice.
Even if first responders manage to locate food supplies and make them available at select locations thanks to back-up generators after a week or two of no power, citizens won't be able to use their credit cards because the banking system will still be down. "So keep some money in the sock drawer," Fisher advised.
One of the table top exercises gathered experts who gamed what would happen if the 300 large generators that form the backbone of the national power grid went down, an event many analysts believe is possible. This is the "catastrophic" scenario that the power industry and those lobbying on behalf of expensive cyber security programs don't want you to imagine.
David P. Hunt, an analyst with CRA, Inc., a Beltway security consulting firm, described the inability of the utilities and national command authorities to recover after such an event.
Industry representatives who participated in the simulations acknowledged the difficulties of "cold starting" power plants and the need for continuous power at nuclear power plants to maintain cooling of spent fuel ponds, Hunt said. Further complicating their efforts would be the lack of communications, since telephone and even radio networks would go down along with the grid, making it nearly impossible to localize back-up generators and the fuel needed to run them. This would lead to multiple "Fukushima" style events, with spent nuclear fuel irradiating large portions of the nation.
But if multiple nuclear meltdowns weren't bad enough, the "cascading effects" of a prolonged shut down of the national power grid might prove irreparable to society as a whole.
"Without power to refineries, pipelines and pumping stations, we may run out of fuel in a matter of days, shutting down our backup systems," Hunt said. "As we played out this scenario, most participants indicated we might reach a tipping point for food, water, medical and emergency services, beyond which recovery becomes problematic and would likely be measured in years, not months."
Hunt concluded: "the nation has not even begun to prepare for how to respond to such an event… It's not even on the conscious radar screen of the nation."
Dr. George H. Baker, a physicist who worked on the staff of the Congressionally-mandated EMP Commission, noted that while such a scenario was "bleak," holding such exercises was important because it highlighted the need for public education.
"We need to do a much better job at educating our citizens, public officials and first responders. A lot of the people who came to these exercises had no idea of the severity, the seriousness of the effects, that we could shut down the entire national power grid for extended periods," Dr. Baker said. "People didn't know that."
And yet, even as all this information is coming out, there are many in industry and even in the government who are playing for time and money to conduct additional exercises and simultations to determine how much damage would be done to power transformers by an EMP event.
The Idaho National Laboratory (INL) conducted the first real-world scale simulation of an EMP attack on the power grid on an isolated 13-mile segment of grid they own in rural Idaho. Because they were told not to destroy equipment, they only simulated the effects at a 10% load on the transformers.
"That's kind of like testing the engine of a sports car while it's at idle," one expert told me.
Even at that unrealistic low level, the INL engineers found that the transformers experienced 80-90% energy loss when blasted with a massive EMP wave. In other words, instead of transforming the energy, they absorbed it, creating heat.
"If the transformer is fully loaded, the temperature is going to be significantly higher than where we operated it," said chief test scientist, Scott McBride. "So if you are already operating hot, you only need a smaller incremental addition of heat to cause the break down of the insulation system."
I asked him if he had any doubt that in the event of a bigger event -- a major solar flare, or a nuclear EMP that lasted longer than the 8 second "blast" his simulators had used to test the power grid, that the transformers would blow up, McBride thought long and hard.
"If we could have a duration significantly longer than our 8 second pulse, yeah, we could cause that transformer to fail."
It was one of those "duh" moments. And yet, Dr. Alenka Brown, the National Defense University official who chaired the table top exercises, said the impact of a geomagnetic event on the power grid "is still debatable" and required further study.
As for an EMP caused by a non-attributable nuclear weapon exploded in the upper atmosphere by Iran or North Korea -- a scenario that clearly worried most of the participants in the table-top exercises -- Dr. Alenka Brown shut down all discussion. "We don't want people getting out duct tape and plastic," she said.
I'm going with Maryland's Michael Fisher. We know plenty already about the catastrophic effects of a geomagnetic or EMP event. The time to prepare is now.
"We are now 100% vulnerable to a major EMP attack or to a major geomagnetic event," said Rep. Trent Franks (R, AZ), sponsor of H.R. 668, also known as the SHIELD Act.
Rep. Franks blasted the Obama administration for spending more effort to rebuke Israel for building houses in its capital than on preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Even worse, he said, was the failure to protect the national power grid, a vulnerability that only invited attack.
"Indeed, by decreasing our vulnerability, we may reduce the likelihood that terrorists or rogue states will attempt such an attack in the first place," Franks said.
There comes a moment in the life of nearly every problem when it's big enough to be seen by reasonable people and still small enough to be solved, Franks said. "I think you and I live in that moment, when there still may be time for the free world to address and mitigate the vulnerability that naturally occurring or weaponized EMP represents to the mechanisms of our civilization."
For less than $1 billion, we can harden the national power grid and prevent this type of disaster from shutting down our society. What are Congress and the Obama administration waiting for?