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“American Blackout”, a pseudo-documentary released by Nat Geo back in 2013, envisions a SHTF scenario gone really sour. Underneath the doom and gloom, it also unveils a massive problem looming over all of our heads: a large-scale event that could take down the power grid across the U.S.

To uninformed ears, it may sound like your average horror story, as terrifying as it is unreal. Yet, the danger is real. And the authorities are very much aware of it, even though they don’t appear to be doing much to prevent it.

The documentary itself may not live up to everyone’s expectations. There are flaws, exaggerations and factual errors. Still, it does a decent job in making the wider public stop for a moment and think about the world we live in, and threats that are inherent to it. Nature going berserk on us isn’t the only modern problem we have to deal with. There is the human factor too, possibly even more dangerous.

While nature usually functions in cycles that come and go and take hundreds of years to evolve, humans and their creations are much more volatile. Remember the massive 2003 blackout? It affected over 55 million people, whose lives became a nightmare in a matter of hours. And it only covered a smallish part of the U.S., lasting up to three days. The cause of such a massive disruption wasn’t a nasty cyberattack. It was an itty-bitty glitch in software. This real story didn’t even have any villains!

If you’re over 50, you may also remember the 1977 New York blackout. Even though it lasted slightly over 24 hours, it unleashed a series of lootings, arson, and other crimes.

These and other real power outages served as inspiration for the “American Blackout”. So, let’s see what lessons we can learn from it.

Contents

American Blackout Got These Things Right

1. The Power Grid IS Vulnerable to Attacks

The things we take for granted, such as electricity, aren’t immune to disruption or even complete shutdown. Even worse, it can happen much easier than it might seem to us in those rare moments when we give it any thought at all.

The power grid is under many potential threats. From a purely human factor (e.g. cyberattack) to Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) induced either by an enemy or a solar storm, all of us should be aware that it CAN happen. And all it takes to make our lives a nightmare is a single event, massive or powerful enough

Now, the Cold War has taught us some common sense regarding the possibility of a nuclear EMP attack. Technically, it is possible. But that doesn’t mean it’s very likely to happen. Any state that dares wield nuclear weapons would have to live with consequences – which would, of course, be nuclear too. Nuclear weaponry isn’t a toy and all the world’s states know it. Except, maybe, in a “GoldenEye”-like scenario, where it would take a James Bond to save us all. And even if a nuclear attack were to happen, the EMP would be the least of our worries.

That, however, doesn’t mean that we should easily discard a possibility of a large-scale, coordinated terrorist attack on our power grid.

american blackout national geography

2. The Grid Failure Would Unleash the Domino Effect

The so-called “Domino Effect” is what happens when you pull out a single domino from a row. Its parts are so interdependent that it only takes a single move to destroy the whole structure. As this pandemic has taught us, our societies definitely are a fragile structure of dominoes.

Saying that our entire world runs on electricity isn’t an overstatement. Our entire systems of communication depend on it. Phones can run off power generators, but their base stations cannot. It means we’d have to live without the internet.

But there’s worse. Electricity powers the pumps that bring water to your home. So, no power means no water. You’ll run to the store for bottled water only to find that people have already ravaged the shelves. Even if you manage to find some, there’s only so much you can buy with the cash you have at hand. Because, guess what, your credit card will be worth zilch without electricity.

And what about the food? A couple of days without it is all it takes for the whole society to plunge into complete disorder, breaking up all the written and unwritten rules that keep this world a relatively safe place for most.

3. Prepping May Not Save Us After All

Among other groups of people, this movie also features a family of preppers. And frankly, I think it did make a point, even if it sounds a bit cruel to all of us who live by the preparedness philosophy.

So, the family bugged out to their secret retreat “somewhere in Colorado”, with 2 years worth of supplies. But even though they do have what it takes to survive, the prepper dad freaks out after finding out that his daughter’s boyfriend gave away some of their food.

Yep, giving away any of your stash in such a scenario is admirable but not very wise from an average prepper’s perspective. Even if you have enough of everything, it would basically wave a flag above your retreat. “Hey everyone! We’re here, and we have tons of food and water. Come and help yourselves to some or all of it!” 

Keeping to yourself is harder than it looks, especially when you know how hard other people are struggling. But hey, nobody ever said that surviving will be easy! For that, you need some grit, not only food and water supplies.

While preppers won’t be spared from trouble, one of the movie’s underlying messages is to still try and get ready as much as you can. Being prepared a little definitely beats not being prepared at all.

4. Getting Back to Normal After American Blackout May Take Months – Or More

In this fictional account, it takes 10 days for the authorities to fix the grid. While 10 days may not seem like much to us, the college kids stuck in an elevator would certainly disagree.

But sadly, these 10 days are not the end of trouble. The society won’t get back to its pre-blackout state for months. After all, it takes so much more effort to rebuild a row of dominoes than to shatter it.

How long to restore communication, food and water distribution lines to even the most distant corners of the country? A week or two at best. Reinstating law and order? Getting people back to work? Rebuilding after all the looting and riots? It’s much more complicated than it looks. And all of that would amount to nothing for thousands if not millions of people who would lose their lives.

These are not exaggerations, as survivors of Hurricane Katrina know all too well. 

Conclusion

Like it or not, “American Blackout” comes close to what would probably happen to you, me and the next person in case of a massive power outage. We’ve been through many similar situations in the past – enough to know first-hand how ugly they can get. How improbable can it be that another, larger catastrophe could happen again?