Exclusive: Understanding the EMP Threat Could Save Your Life

by JENA BAKER MCNEILL March 23, 2010
Americans know to dial 911 and wait for first responders when a medical emergency occurs. We go about our daily lives confident that, if needed, an ambulance will arrive quickly and whisk us to an emergency room for medical attention.
But another threat to the health of all Americans remains largely ignored. It’s one that could bring down the entire health care system in just a matter of minutes.
EMP – electromagnetic pulse – is a phenomenon first discovered by scientists doing nuclear testing in the 1940s. They observed that this high frequency pulse, produced by the explosion of a nuclear weapon in the earth’s atmosphere, could create a pulse that destroys electronics and electrical systems. Under certain conditions, an EMP could bring down America’s digital infrastructure.
This pulse could halt water supplies and shut down hospitals, as well as the entire power grid, the source of electricity for almost everything that makes society run.
Everything in America is electronic. Just ask any parent who has had to buy 40 packs of batteries on Christmas Eve. Or folks with robo-vacuums or programmable thermostats.
But this isn’t just about modern conveniences. It’s about medical devices, emergency response equipment and a health care system that relies on a functioning power grid. President Barack Obama has emphasized his push towards electronic medical records for all Americans, but an EMP would make it next to impossible to access those records. That could have major consequences in terms of drug interactions and prognoses.
The interconnected nature of American infrastructure makes matters worse. Take the 2003 Northeast blackout. It caused a temporary power shortage across much of the Eastern seaboard, leaving some 55 million people in the United States and Canada in the dark. The effects were widespread: emergency lines were shut down for some time in New York City, cell phone lines were jammed, and some folks literally slept on the streets when they couldn’t get a train home.
An EMP, however, would be much worse. Generators – which, during the 2003 blackout kept New York and other places somewhat functional – would likely be useless under an EMP scenario. An EMP would also have a cascading effect that could reach Americans from Washington, D.C. to Los Angeles.
This may sound like a Hollywood thriller. It’s difficult to imagine that a single pulse could be capable of destroying America’s infrastructure.
But a congressionally-mandated commission has explained why this threat is very real, and how other nations have explored the ability to harness EMP as a weapon. Most notably, 28 countries have the type of ballistic missile capabilities to could carry out such an attack. Several of them, such as Iran and North Korea, don’t like America very much.
Yet Congress has largely ignored the EMP Commission’s warnings. The military has taken some steps to harden Air Force One and other defense assets against an EMP attack. But critical infrastructure, including the resources which keep Americans healthy and alive (hospitals and first responder resources) remain ill-equipped.
The Commission’s chairman has testified that within one year of such an attack, 70 percent to 90 percent of Americans would be dead from such causes as disease. It is also possible that many Americans would die of starvation due to the interruption of the national food supply, which is entirely automated and needs a functioning power grid to operate.
If America can spend months and months debating the future of health care, why are so many of us still in the dark about EMP preparedness?
Jena Baker McNeill is a homeland security policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org)..

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