Exclusive: What Kind of Attack Can Kill 70 to 90 Percent of Americans Within One Year?

by JENA BAKER MCNEILL April 1, 2010
When the power goes out, what’s the first thing we do?
Grab a flashlight. Search for batteries. Light some candles. Next, we worry about what’s in the fridge. If the power outage lasts for more than four hours, hundreds of dollars in food may be wasted.
Cleaning out the fridge and replacing lost food is costly, messy and unpleasant. Fortunately, however, the lights do eventually come back on, and we can go about our daily lives. After an EMP attack, however, getting the power restored would take much, much longer.
EMP stands for electromagnetic pulse. It’s a pulse that can be used as a weapon (most likely caused by blast of a nuclear weapon in the Earth’s atmosphere), and would destroy the critical infrastructure that Americans rely on. Specifically, an EMP, under the right conditions, is extremely damaging to electronics and the electric grid -- the system that keeps those refrigerators (and the food supply) running.  
Most Americans are used to fast, cheap and easy food options. McDonald’s, in fact, prides itself on a 90-second or less service time. And given our tendency to eat too much, it is odd to think about any American starving to death.
The impact of an EMP attack on America’s food supply, however, would be enormous. Food wouldn’t simply spoil, but delivering food and cooking it also would be problematic. Many Americans would struggle to survive.
You may not realize, but your grocery store carries very few foods from the local area. Strawberries are often from Mexico, oranges from Florida, and plums from California. For those curious, Ramen Noodles are made in Richmond, Virginia.
EMP, however, would take down the equipment that makes this system function. Besides problems getting food from place to place, preparing, baking, or cooking food would be difficult for both food production companies and everyday citizens. Remember the jalapeño salmonella outbreak in 2008? One small facility in Texas caused the outbreak. Swiftly, at least 1,251 people all over the nation got sick. Preventing food-borne illnesses would be difficult without needed refrigeration or necessary heat.
The EMP Commission Chairman has stated that within the first year of an attack, 70 percent to 90 percent of Americans would be dead from starvation or disease. Forget the orderly bread lines of the Depression; the scramble for any remaining sustenance would be ugly and most likely deadly.
This isn’t an encouragement to “buy local.” It’s more of a wake-up call that this doesn’t have to happen. With a few investments, the U.S. can harden critical infrastructure in a way that will help the food system get back online quickly if such an attack occurs.
Instead of taking these steps, however, the U.S. government is, in effect, leaving the refrigerator door open when it comes to EMP. America’s adversaries are exploring EMP as a weapon. It’s time for Congress and the administration to pay attention.
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor Jena Baker McNeill is a homeland security policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org).

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