Although a long-term, widespread power outage may not be a top priority in community preparedness plans, many communities have considered the devastating effects of such a scenario. A long-term power outage, for the purpose of this article, is defined as one that lasts from the time regular and emergency resources are depleted to a year – or even longer. The cause of the power outage could be any of the following: an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) from any source, a cascading event after a smaller area is affected by some type of power system intrusion or attack, or any other threat or hazard that could cause a power outage.
A lot of writings and movies depict what life may be like during a long-term power outage, and they are not encouraging. Despite these negative predictions and the lack of preparation for such outages within most communities, some small preparedness steps could help mitigate the severity of the situation and raise communities to higher levels of preparedness and resilience. The focus here is on what local government, emergency managers, and communities can do to prepare for a time when all supplies and resources are depleted.
One of the biggest problems to be expected with this scenario is the interrupted capability to transport needed goods for resupply to an affected area. Therefore, preparations should expand beyond the current recommendation of two weeks to include the next (and much longer) phase. Not focusing on and preparing for the next phase will result in lower community resilience. Although it may seem daunting, there are some preparedness steps that local governments, emergency management officials, and communities can start to take.
Community Leadership Actions
Emergency managers can and should have a role in moving communities forward toward resilience with regard to long-term power outages, similar to their efforts in increasing resilience for other emergency and disaster scenarios. Emergency managers should allot part of their time for outreach to inform the public about resources related to outdoor and agricultural activity, which likely already exist within their communities. Local or regional organizations such as a variety of gardening clubs, agriculture services, and colleges and universities usually have programs to teach community members about farming and gardening. There should also be a focus on courses that teach camping, filtering and sterilizing water, and hunting, fishing, and trapping as well. The idea is not a return to agrarian roots, but only to familiarizing themselves with these basic skills. Although not as important today because they are not typically necessary for daily life or survival, these skills will be key for sustaining communities through a long-term loss of power.
When preparing for long-term power outages, the idea is not a return to agrarian roots, but to familiarize communities with basic life-saving skills.
In the scenario presented, if few or no communities adopt and practice these types of preparedness measures, it may or may not be helpful to those that do in a scenario where all resources are depleted and no resources are able to be resupplied. At that point, many people searching for food and water could become desperate, leading to other problems and fear. However, as more communities begin focusing some effort in this direction and incorporate these skills into emergency preparedness discussions – for example, with emergency plans and kits – other communities may find themselves preparing similarly. Community leaders can begin with the following:
- Adopt basic survival skills as a commonsense strategy to getting through a long-term crisis;
- Talk about and begin incorporating these skills into community preparedness outreach;
- Highlight programs that already exist within the community; and
- Foster acceptance and make the old new again, with regard to ongoing sharpening of camping, gardening, hunting/fishing, and other needed skills. Again, it is not about doing the farming, gardening, etc., it is important in this case simply to know how.
Reuniting Communities With the Basics
Recommendations of hardening the entire power infrastructure do not appear practical simply because doing so is not affordable – and is likely why it has not yet been done. However, the recommendations for communities from those that focus almost entirely on long-term power outages – such as the Electromagnetic Pulse Special Interest Group (SIG), InfraGard National EMP (SIG), author Michael Mabee, the National Infrastructure Advisory Council, author Jim LeBlanc, and others – provide what is needed for communities to be prepared. Similar recommendations from these sources focus primarily on building community resilience with particular actions:
- Learning basic survival skills, growing food, etc.;
- Organizing the community toward a common goal;
- Having a common, known meeting area in each community where information and announcements can be provided and received; or
- Identifying how each person can contribute in their own way.
To date, though, an avenue of approach that connects the information to application or to action is lacking. Even more challenging is gaining buy in from the community and surrounding areas.
As individualistic as society has become, it does seem that it would be challenging to pivot in this direction, especially since the needed knowledge and skills that once filled communities is no longer prevalent. However, it is a worthy effort to relearn and recommit to some basic skills in order to ensure survival in a long-term disruption of power. An effective strategy for surviving such a debilitating, drawn-out incident requires all or most members of a community to pull together and collaborate, which community leaders and emergency managers could find even more challenging than getting lots of people to take a few extra courses in gardening, camping, or water purification during non-disaster times.
A primary reason for the current attitude about preparedness for this scenario may be precisely because it is not a scenario people are talking about. That needs to change. In some communities, emergency managers are becoming involved in preparedness efforts for this type of event, which has been discussed in the past. Community outreach already includes teaching first aid, cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), basic search and rescue, creating emergency plans and kits, caring for pets in disasters, and meetings for awareness of different types of hazards. From there, it would not take much effort to also include in outreach efforts, at a minimum, highlights of resources already located within the community that offer courses in gardening, camping, hunting, water sterilization, and other relevant skills. Local communities will not lose anything from the added effort in this area, they only stand to gain resilience.