There has been a great deal of talk surrounding electromagnetic pulse disasters (EMPs). EMP’s promise destruction and disruption on a scale previously unimaginable, and attack the infrastructure and equipment of a nation directly by frying anything that utilizes a computer chip or a circuit board along with other electrical devices.
This means that all of the vast and intricate networks we rely on in our day-to-day lives would vanish quite literally in an instant.
Electromagnetic pulses are a very real threat and one of the most likely “Big One” SHTF scenarios. An EMP is typically anticipated as a secondary effect of a high-order nuclear warhead detonation that will affect everything within line-of-sight of the blast, making a high altitude “airburst” detonation an entirely new class of threat.
Additionally, EMPs can also be generated by purpose-made technology that can produce the same results without any of the messy side effects and destruction of a nuclear-tipped missile.
Many countries have in their arsenals today nuclear weapons and so-called EMP generators are propagating all the time. To make matters even worse, it is also very possible for EMPs to occur naturally.
If you and your region were to be affected by an EMP you could be facing a survival situation deprived of all electronic support, meaning no electronic communications, no computer-controlled vehicles, no internet, no nothing.
An EMP is a paradigm-shifting occurrence that threatens to plunge the affected area back into the Stone Age. This is a major threat and one you must be ready for.
Table of Contents
What Is An EMP?
An EMP, also sometimes called a Transient Electromagnetic Disturbance, is a brief burst of electromagnetic energy. Most people know that an EMP can damage electronic devices, but it can also do physical damage.
For example, a bolt of lightning is actually a side-effect of an EMP. If you have ever seen a tree after being struck by lightning, you know how destructive this force can be.
There are times that EMPs can come from outside the earth’s atmosphere. It is possible for a meteor to hit our atmosphere and cause a pulse when it breaks apart.
The sun can also produce EMPs as gases explode outward from the surface. These are called solar flares and they happen all the time. Major flares are the ones that can do real damage.
Nuclear EMPs are generated both as a primary EMP resulting from the blast and a secondary EMP resulting from ionizing the surrounding air. As the electrons are ripped from the atoms and then reattached, another pulse is emitted.
A normal nuclear blast produces an EMP, but a NEMP (nuclear EMP) is specifically designed to do its primary damage through the pulse and not the blast.
HEMPs are high-altitude blasts that work a bit differently. They flood the stratosphere with gamma rays that ionize atoms.
As these atoms react with the earth’s gravity, it creates a much stronger pulse than a ground-level blast. These could easily take down a 700-mile radius disabling about half of the United States with one strike.
NNEMPs or non-nuclear EMPs generate the pulse without using nuclear material. These devices serve a very specific purpose as they have a small radius of effectiveness but allow the user to target a defined area.
They are ideal for taking out ground vehicles and aircraft. They do still require a chemical explosion and can be delivered via missile or drone.
The Aftermath of an EMP
So what will happen after an EMP? Pure chaos is likely.
EMPs create surges in current and voltage in all electronic components. This means cell phones, televisions, radios, computers, cars, trains, and planes would all go down because of the computers built into these devices.
The electrical grid would be permanently fried so it would take months or years to get the power back on.
No power means no running water, no refrigeration, no A/C or heat, no lights, no communication, and no access to your funds in the bank. It would literally send us back to the Stone Age, and most people would not know how to survive for more than a few days.
Out of desperation, hordes of people would take to the streets looting and stealing any supplies they can find.
The threat goes further than just panic. Prisons would shut down and inmates would likely escape. With the police down for the count, criminals would do what they please. The violence would be severe.
Hospitals and nursing homes would shut down and people would start dying as their breathing machines and other devices power down. Without vital prescriptions, many more would die in the coming days and weeks.
It is estimated that as many as 500,000 people would die in the first hour due to planes crashing.
Without power, every aircraft in the sky would fall to the ground or glide into buildings killing almost everybody on board. Many people on the ground would die as well when these flights plow into populated areas.
Elevators would be a death trap as they freeze in place. Those inside would be in complete darkness and would have to try and find a way out before dying of dehydration. Anybody living near nuclear plants would be in trouble as well.
As the backup generators get fried, these plants would melt down releasing large amounts of radiation. They would kill anybody downwind of the plant. There are 99 nuclear reactors located in the US.
Another risk is being on a highway during the pulse. Cars going 70 MPH would lose their power steering but would keep rolling until they come to a stop.
Many vehicles would run into oncoming traffic or would coast off the edge of the road. Some would hit other cars doing major damage. Those in tunnels would be in complete darkness as well, so they would really be in trouble.
Cholera would likely become a problem within the first few weeks (which is caused by people drinking tainted water). With no power, water filtration plants would go down. Humans can only survive for three days without water.
When day three rolls around people will start drinking whatever water they can find. This disease will likely kill more Americans than any other aspect of an EMP event.
One of the most widespread issues in this scenario is getting to your children. Many parents work 20 or more miles from home or from their child’s school.
With all transportation coming to a halt, parents would have to hike to their kids and hope their teacher stuck around despite having a family of their own.
What might life look like for other groups of people living in the eerie quiet of this dawn? We’ll speculate about that just below.
What Will Happen With…
The United States Federal Government’s response to and weathering of the EMP will likely be a mixed bag.
It stands to reason that the most essential personnel, agencies, and installations in the most important branches of government will have a certain amount of redundant systems, EMP-hardening, and loss-of-infrastructure plans in place for just such an occasion.
On the other end of the spectrum, non-essential agencies and branches as well as the offices and installations of lesser officials will in all likelihood lack this capability, and will be effectively down for the count for the foreseeable future.
While likely not a priority in the immediate aftermath of the event services like the post office might actually perform fairly well, the logistics of such an operation lending itself to analog procedures.
Data collection and collation agencies that rely heavily on modern computing and databasing will be crippled or gutted outright, and chances are they will not have anything approximating adequate paper records to allow them to get up and running anytime soon.
Hilariously if there is one agency you can count on making the transition to analog as quickly as possible it will be the IRS.
Truly, the only thing in life that is certain is death and taxes, and every day we get closer and closer to defeating the former leaving the latter to stalk our waking hours.
So long as the government is still solvent their need for income will remain, event be damned.
If the situation has deteriorated badly enough that paper money is only suitable for tinder, they will extract their taxes in some other form, be it food, or even personnel, making conscription a reality in the post-blackout United States.
The military is another matter entirely. Of all the factions that will be involved and trying to put the pieces back together post-EMP, the military is most likely to have crucial command-and-control infrastructure hardened or backed up entirely against just such an occurrence.
Quite a few military vehicles are likely to be hardened against EMP in order to remain operational in the event of any tactical or strategic nuclear weapon deployments during wars with other superpowers at any rate, and in the event vehicles are knocked out the military has the manpower, the expertise and the reserves of spare parts to get at least some of them going again in fairly short order.
It goes without saying that you’d expect to see a mass military deployment in the continental United States in response to a regional or national collapse resulting from an EMP.
Indeed, their generators and other devices might be the only reliable source of power for certain places, at least for the foreseeable future.
Nonetheless, the government and the military are both enormous bureaucracies and modern bureaucracies are fairly dependent upon electronic bookkeeping, communications, and data sorting for smooth operation.
An EMP event that knocks out these electronic databases will induce a state of sluggishness and disorientation for any organization so large, akin to a fighter taking a stiff shot to the solar plexus or temple.
If your EMP survival plan revolves around a swift, certain intervention by the military or the federal government, you might want to think twice.
Looters and Criminals
The criminal element of society will at least be hampered by the same things in the aftermath of an EMP that are hampering everyone else, namely a vast majority of automobiles and communications devices being knocked out.
But unlike the rest of us, this is actually likely to benefit them in the short- to mid-term future after the event.
In eras gone by, criminal malcontents had an easier go of things since communications and the dissemination of accurate data was so much slower and less certain.
It was an easy thing for a criminal to go on a crime spree in one place before pulling up stakes and heading somewhere else far, far away from the site of their evil deeds to start the whole process again anew.
Compare that with the challenges that criminality faces today in the form of near-instantaneous communication thanks to radios and cell phones, internet dissemination of mug shots, and coordinated police responses in the form of fleets of vehicles and even aircraft and you can see why the ne’er-do-wells might prefer it the old way.
Traditionally times of chaos and uncertainty have always fueled criminality since the jackals and coyotes are quick to take advantage of fear and distraction to achieve their own ends.
You can depend on police and other law enforcement agencies having their hands absolutely full just trying to keep their own ship upright, as it were, and that means that more criminal acts will slip through the net completely unopposed.
The more crimes that go uncontested the more emboldened the criminals who commit them will be.
This severe degradation of law enforcement efficiency will embolden criminals since they will have less to fear when it comes to reprisal.
Brazen daylight muggings or home invasions, forthright killings, and other rapacious activities will multiply and be a constant threat in the aftermath of an EMP.
This threat as you might expect will be most pervasive in cities and other densely populated areas, especially areas where disparate cultures butt right up against each other.
“Confidence” crimes will also skyrocket since fear and uncertainty make fertile ground for such activities. Everyone will be looking for the handout, the hand up, the savior, or just the person with the answers to their problems and that means con men will flourish and have fruitful careers.
It is not out of the question that some organized gangs and other criminal enterprises will use the degraded and shrinking umbrella of police coverage to expand their own activities and even operate openly, some even calling people to their banner or going semi-legitimate by providing outright protection in return for goods and material gain.
In places where police or government presence evaporates or is reduced to a shadow of its former self these gangs and warbands might be the only source of stability for a time, no matter how despotic it might be.
Operating under that premise it is also possible that others will take their show on the road, roving from place to place with varying levels of efficiency to loot and plunder like the buccaneers of old.
These rapacious bands of scumbags will be a severe threat to anyone living in a sparsely populated area or remotely as your only hope of fending them off once discovered is through an overwhelming show of force which a small family or tiny group of like-minded preppers is unlikely to muster.
Police and Fire Depts., Other Emergency Services
Perhaps one of the most significant impacts inflicted on society as a result of the EMP event will be the severe degradation of emergency services.
Police departments, firefighters, and EMS services will all be severely hampered both by the loss of vital equipment and vehicles as well as the near total collapse of the communications infrastructure needed for timely and efficient dispatching.
Even if their own communications infrastructure was not damaged or destroyed by the event it is all but a certainty that systems used by the public will be.
Discounting for a moment the loss of vehicles and other equipment, emergency services could still be dispatched using less effective systems consisting of lookouts, patrols, and other viable but inefficient signaling systems.
These systems will of course not hold a candle to modern phone and internet-based protocols, but they will at least allow emergency responders to function.
Of course, the mayhem and devastation resulting from all the many second and third-order effects of the EMP will mean they’re all going to be very, very busy in the aftermath for some time to come.
Quite a few members from all services will perish and some of them will desert to take care of their own families and holdings in the wake of such an event.
What this means to you as a citizen, and to the rest of society is that you will well and truly become your own first responder for the duration, at least until some nominal standard of command, control and dispatching is re-established.
If a fire breaks out on your property or threatens your property, you had better have a plan for dealing with it. You absolutely better have a plan for dealing with criminals and looters.
Lastly, it’s imperative that you know how to treat injuries of all kinds and deal with trauma since there will not be any ambulance coming to cart you off to a clean, spacious hospital with doctors and nurses ready to receive you in the emergency room if you are wounded.
Ultimately, while many of these valiant and dutiful members of society will do their jobs even unto death, they are only so many, and even in the best of times there are only “just enough”.
The situation will be grim indeed in the wake of an EMP and it will be a long while before you can expect the cavalry to come roaring in with lights and sirens when called.
It is hard for me to predict how you, the reader, will fare after an EMP, and for that matter, the rest of the civilians just trying to keep their heads above water and their families alive during such an unprecedented event.
You like everyone else will be facing the total loss of most of your electronics and any machine or system that is dependent upon a circuit board. Unless, perhaps, you had the foresight and the ingenuity to protect your most delicate preps with a Faraday cage or exclusion chamber (more on those in a bit).
Even then, a “live test” of the protective qualities of such countermeasures, especially homemade versions of them, by a major-scale EMP has never been conducted.
Regardless of the status of your electronics, I do know that your survival skills and your ingenuity will be put to the ultimate test.
An EMP will affect society in ways unimaginable; it will be a paradigm-shifting event with the immediate aftermath a veritable party pack of lesser disasters, including fires, rioting, famine, and mass exposure as heating and air conditioning systems fail or run out of fuel in various hostile climates.
If you live in a densely populated urban zone you will probably be facing a mad scramble to bug out and get clear of the city before the carnage gets too bad.
If you live in a rural area, perhaps you will stay put, or just take a leisurely stroll a little farther down the line to a remote cabin or the even-more-rural property of a relative or friend. Chances are you will not be using your GPS on this journey.
Or perhaps you might be forced to buckle down and fend off rampaging bands of looters and the desperate dregs of humanity who are not as prepared as you are.
But, it isn’t all bad news. Probably more than most people the fact that you are reading this article indicates you are better prepared for surviving, even thriving, in the austere environment brought on by the EMP event.
It is a far easier thing for an individual or a small tribe of families or just like-minded families, to turn back the clock and their skills to that of a previous era and go on with the business of living.
By taking the time to invest in yourself and your family’s well-being by developing skills and contingency plans for this and other events you might be facing some rough roads ahead, but you can be confident that with a little luck, you will come out the other side- even if TV and the internet are a thing of the past!
Protected Devices and Faraday Cages
What devices would not be affected? The short answer is that any electronic device could be susceptible. However, small devices may not have enough wiring to draw damage from a pulse. It all depends on the strength of the pulse.
Also, I have heard that auto manufacturers protect some of the vehicles’ components against EMPs, but you cannot bank on any vehicle being 100% protected.
The only reliable way to protect anything electrical is a Faraday cage. Faraday cages are enclosures made of either solid metal or wire. In the event of an EMP the pulse would travel around the cage and not through it leaving electronics unharmed.
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These devices must be unplugged for this to work. I’ve seen faraday cages as large as a room and as small as a purse.
For the smallest versions, you can purchase one online for items like cell phones, radios, flashlights, solar chargers, and inverters. With any sized Faraday cage, there must be a layer of non-conductive material inside the cage but surrounding each item. This could be cardboard, Styrofoam, plastic, or even paper.
For mid-sized cages, a metal filing cabinet or metal swing-door cabinet work well. These give you plenty of space for smaller items, but there is also room for slightly larger things like small generators, solar panels, or medical equipment.
One way to finish off your cage is to line the inside with sheets of foam insulation or cardboard.
For the largest cages you can line a room with sheet-metal or build an actual cage. The cage can be made from any conductive material so rebar or exposed copper wiring works well.
A large enough faraday cage can protect an entire household’s electronics including a vehicle. Do not forget that you must still surround the items with a non-conductive material.
The Big Picture
An EMP event is getting more and more likely, and the government knows it. The EMP commission report submitted to Congress in 2004 indicated that 9 out of 10 Americans would die in the two years following a pulse.
Furthermore, millions would die in just the first few weeks. If the mainland United States is ever attacked, this would likely be the first move.
What are the long-term consequences? A major EMP strike could shut down US power for 10 years. The entire grid would have to be rebuilt. It would cost the United States over $2 trillion in just the first year.
In addition, it would leave the US susceptible to mainland attack. Without our jets, Humvees, helicopters, missiles, and ships we would be at a great disadvantage.
The craziness of all this is how simple the solution could be. For a mere $2 billion the US government could retrofit most of the grid to protect against an EMP blast.
I know that sounds like a great deal of money, but it is only .1% of the $2 trillion that would be spent in the first year after the blast. Despite how likely it is that this will happen, the government has no intention of doing the work to protect us all.
The only advantage that the survivalists and preppers will have is that we will know what has happened when it happens. While other people are trying to call 911 or trying to finish their day at the office, we will be gathering supplies and bugging out or bugging in.
While others are running around confused, we will be setting up security and be gathering our families. We will be ready.
Is that enough? Definitely not. Action needs to be taken on a larger scale to protect against this problem. If Congress has known about this threat since 2004, then there is no excuse for being unprepared.
It is just a matter of time before another country takes advantage of our weakness. I truly hope there will still be a United States after the dust settles.
My name is Ryan Dotson and I am a survivalist, prepper, writer, and photographer. I grew up in the Ozark Mountains and in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains. My interest in survival started when I was in Boy Scouts and continued as my father, uncle, and grandfather taught me to hunt and fish. In the last few years I have started taking on survival challenges and have started writing about my experiences. I currently live in Mid-Missouri with my wife Lauren and three year old son Andrew.