Surviving an EMP Attack: Life Without Electricity

Published: 9/28/16

A life without electricity, how many can say they have lived it?  I can… at least for a few days anyway.

On a recent quest to identify the shortfalls in our emergency preparedness plan, our family decided to try out what it would actually be like to live without running water or electricity for 72 hours. We wanted to know what we would really need to survive like this in our home for an extended period of time.

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With recent discussion of possible blackout scenarios in the news, we thought this would be a great exercise to test our preps. The potential for a nationwide power failure is a lot more real than many even realize. An electromagnetic pulse or (EMP) caused by solar flares from the sun could easily knock out the entire power grid. The possibility of a nuclear or cyber attack is also a major threat to grid system. As depicted in the t.v. show Revolution, it doesn’t take long for society to collapse after a catastrophic power loss.

The United States is extremely dependent on electricity these days and it seems like electronic devices have infiltrated every facet of society.  The catastrophic effects of a large scale power failure would be devastating and could take months or possibly even years for society to fully recover.

Before we get into the details of our 3 day simulation, let’s discuss a little more about EMP’s for those who may not already be familiar with the term.  An EMP or (Electromagnetic Pulse) is described by Dictionary.com as “a burst of electromagnetic energy produced by a nuclear explosion in the atmosphere, considered capable of widespread damage to power lines, telecommunications, and electronic equipment.”




EMP’s can occur as a result of natural causes like lightening, electrostatic discharge or a solar storm.  But the more sinister possibility of a cyber attack on our power grid or the release of a nuclear device in the stratosphere which is known as a high altitude EMP is what has many concerned about this threat today.

See: Trump Told EMP Attack to be Used to Stop the Election

EMP’s pose a very broad threat to our way of life and personal safety.  Some have said that an EMP attack has the potential to send modern society back into to the 1800’s in an instant.  The problem is that we are so dependent on electricity for all basic functions of our day to day lives no one would have a clue how to maintain without it anymore.  Back then we were accustomed to using candles and fuel lamps for lighting and most homes were equipped with wood burning stoves and fireplaces for heat.  Many families received their water from wells on their properties rather than depending on a central system and electrical pumps to supply clean water so we would not be nearly as affected by the loss as we would in modern times.

The effects of an EMP would essentially cripple all business, travel and personal activities and send us back to the stone ages.  Without time to prepare ourselves for such an event what would become of us?  Many suspect that society would descend into chaos as roadways become jammed, emergency services are deemed incapable and hospitals would fail to function.

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What does this mean for you and your loved ones?

Immediate Effects of an EMP:

  • Planes would fall from the sky
  • Trains and public transportation could possible derail or become stuck on the tracks
  • Automobile accidents would occur as electronic components inside newer vehicles become inoperable and traffic signals are down
  • Elevators would become stuck mid-transit possibly trapping millions in highly populated urban areas
  • Rollercoasters could possibly become stuck leaving passengers stranded in precarious situations

These are just a few examples of electronics in motion, can you think of anymore that would be have devastating repercussions of they lost power all the sudden?

Interim Effects of an EMP:

After the first and most shocking immediate effects of an EMP are seen we would move into the next phase of dealing with the effects of these accidents.

  • Fires would rage uncontrolled as a result of fallen planes, automobile accidents, transformer explosions, etc.
  • Water would not be available to put out the fires as the pumps which depend on electricity to provide water to the communities would be rendered inoperable.
  • All methods of communication would no longer function as phones, televisions, radios and computers would no longer work.
  • The banks and ATM machines would be shut down so you would not be able to access the money you have in the bank.
  • Even if you have cash it won’t do you much good since most stores and gas stations would be shut down due to security issues.
  • Without refrigeration perishable food in homes and supermarkets would begin to spoil.

Long-term Effects of an EMP

After several days without electricity people would begin to panic as they run out of food, water and medication.  This is when things would really start to get ugly.

  • As fear turns into panic people would begin turning on their neighbors to get their hands on needed supplies.
  • Those who choose to hunker down at home would be faced with the threat of criminals trying to break and steal their resources or hurt their families.
  • People who were trapped due to the immediate effects of the EMP would begin to die of thirst and starvation.
  • Looting and rioting in the streets would lead to mass violence within communities.
  • Without sufficient authorities available to keep the peace, society would ultimately collapse and descend into complete chaos.


Many of the articles and books you’ll find on this topic tend to focus on one thing: protecting electronic devices from the physical effects of an EMP.  While this is an important thing to consider, I don’t feel that it serves the more important goal of protecting your own personal safety from the threats that will most definitely result from such an attack.  While EMP hardening can be helpful is it really worth it?  Sure you can build a Farady cage and place all of your precious electronics inside it but in reality what good is having your cell phone if no one else in the world has one anymore?  And even if someone did it won’t do either of you any good to try to use it when all of the cell phone towers are down anyway.

One situation that I do recommend using a Farady cage is to store sentimental items on a back up hard drive such as family pictures, historical records or important documents that are hard to replace.  There are many resources available that teach you how to make a Farady cage and most require few materials to put together and are fairly inexpensive to make.

See: Build Your Own Farady Cage: Here’s How

In this article we will focus more on preparations to keep you alive after an EMP strike.  How to make sure you have your basic survival necessities covered so that you can sleep at night knowing that you and your family are protected.

Solar Flare Nasa Image

AFP/NASA/Ho – A NASA image of an erupting solar flare. A powerful solar eruption that has already disturbed radio communications …

What follows is a chronicle of what we went through during those three days without electricity. The lessons we learned and what we discovered we were lacking in our storage items. Many of which you don’t ever think about until you actually try living without it. Many Preppers like to think we have already thought of everything and that anything we may need is just a cabinet door away. But when you actually try living that way you quickly realize there are many, many things you’ve overlooked. It’s like driving 100 miles up to your favorite camp spot with a truck full of goods, only to realize you forgot your tent. We learned many lessons during this family adventure we will refer to as “the blackout”, but most importantly we learned where we needed to fill in the gaps. As a result, we were able to patch up the holes in our preparations and now I feel a lot more confident in our ability to ride out any storm that may come our way.

Ground rules:

  • No lights, radio, television, heat/ac or any other conveniences that require electricity from the outlet.
  • Unplug all the computers, alarm clocks, etc.
  • No turning on sinks or flushing toilets.
  • Tape down all the sink levers and toilet handles with masking tape.
  • Absolutely no electronics (even the battery powered ones) since they would not be functional in the event of an actual EMP attack

The night before the blackout we made a few preparations to get started:

  • We filled up two 50 gallon tubs with tap water for washing as well as 5 cases of bottled water to satisfy our drinking/cooking needs.
  • We filled the freezer with dry ice to keep everything cool while the power was out.
  • We filled up all our coolers with ice for drinks, etc.
  • We turned off the breaker to the house to kill the power so that we would be true to the 72 hour period of darkness we had decided to impose on ourselves.




Life without Electricity

Day 1

The first morning was probably the most interesting because we took the opportunity to have fun with it and used our imagination a little as things got rolling. We settled into a role playing type of scenario where we pretended we didn’t know why or how the power got turned off (just as it would likely be in areal life situation). After verifying that nothing in the house was working, none of the outlets were active and the land line was down we were safe to conclude that something bigger was going on, and it wasn’t just us.

We both checked our cellphones to see if we could call out to get some information about what was happening but no luck on either line. We were cut off from the world, and the only way to find out what was going on was to leave the house. We decided to ride it out and see if the power would come back on soon – who knows what it might be like out there.

We would hunker down and play board games together, read books, color, crochet and do yoga together. Just enjoy being a family, something that we seem to have little time to do these days with so many entertaining distractions available.

First business of the morning, I head straight to the bathroom and it hits me just how fun this is going to be without flushing the toilet for 3 days. I debated flushing for a moment since I had quickly rationalized that we would at least have a few flushes left in a real life situation. Even if the water had been turned off all night there would still be some water left in the pipe. But I restrained myself and left it to sit just like we’d agreed when we set the rules. You’d be surprised how hard it is to not flush the toilet when it’s been built into you for so many years. Hence why we taped them up to begin with.

Next on the agenda, I go to get my daughter some cereal for breakfast and notice that the temperature in the fridge is already starting to go up, despite the bags of ice we’d put in there to keep it cool. But the milk was still good and cold so I fixed some cereal and resolved to only open the fridge when absolutely necessary. So we wouldn’t make the situation worse.


As I plopped down on the couch I quickly realized that I had forgotten about my pet frogs, two firebelly red frogs that require a heat lamp on them all day to maintain the proper temperature in the aquarium. I had to figure out a way to replace that heat without electricity for a lamp – big problem. My first thought was a heating pad – nope, where am I going to plug it in? Then I thought about using some of my hand warmers to put under the aquarium to keep the bottom warm, which would naturally allow the heat to rise up through the cage. What about the oven? I could turn it on low and open the door and set them right on top of the stove?

It was actually pretty funny how almost every idea I had involved the use of some sort of electricity. You really don’t realize how accustomed you are to having it until it’s not there anymore. It was quite a challenge to even start to think outside the box and come up with a viable option to my dilemma. Finally it hit me – these guys just need sun, all that lamp was doing was creating artificial sun for them since they couldn’t have the real thing. I was going to give them the real thing, problem solved. I found the sunniest south-facing window in the house and set them right in front of it, with a dark towel half covering the tank, to help draw the sun and keep the heat from escaping.

Once the frogs we’re taken care of, the rest morning was pretty easy. We snacked on dried fruit from our food storage and just hung out on the living room floor with the windows open to provide a nice breeze.  Since none of the clocks in the house worked, it was hard to know when it was time to make lunch. By the time we thought to check the wrist watch it was already 1:30pm. The first half of the day flew by! Of course we didn’t know what time we woke up but I’m sure it couldn’t have been that late. After having some tuna fish sandwiches and chips for lunch, we decided to break out the guitars and play some music, the house seemed so eerily quiet without the usual chatter from television or radio playing in the background.

As the sun started to set we gathered up all the things we knew we might need over the next few days. We drug the grill out of the garage to cook dinner. We grabbed our stash of flash lights and batteries, luckily we already have these great little emergency night lights in outlets all around the house that automatically convert to stored power when the electricity is out, which helped a lot to provide some extra light during the evening. We also got out some candles and oil lamps, with an extra bottle of oil. We bought a bunch of these from thrift stores and garage sales since I remembered my grandma having those when I was little and she would light her entire house with them at night to save electricity. I remembered the oil lasting forever back then but I hadn’t actually tested that theory yet so I was excited to document the results for future reference.

As dinner time approached we had an interesting time trying to figure out what to make for dinner and the best way to make it. I was okay with finger foods but my husband insisted that we have a hot cooked meal. So we fired up the grill and we used up the hamburger meat and hot dogs we had in the fridge, figuring they would probably go bad first. We also went ahead and cooked up some chicken breasts we had although none of us had the appetite to eat it after gorging on all those hamburgers and hot dogs. I figured it was better to store cooked meat in less than ideal temperatures than to store raw meat and run the risk of contamination. Although it took some time cook everything we ended up having a nice little feast that first night – full of protein.

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The biggest mistake we made with dinner was trying to prepare the food after the sun had gone down. Once the sun had set completely it was pitch black in that house besides the candle light and occasional flash light used to walk around. I ended up rigging up a flashlight taped to the top of the fridge and aimed down at the counter top so that we had some overhead light to prepare the food.

After dinner we decided to save the dishes for the next day since it was such a pain to see during the night. Plus we were all full and somehow being in a house with only candle light and no television makes you want to turn in early. I think we were all just thinking that the earlier we got to bed, the sooner it would be morning and somehow the dark, quite house wouldn’t seem so boring.

Notes from the first day:

I recently discovered an amazing product that would have been much more useful in that situation.  The Luci Light from M-Powered is a newer product that provides light in emergency situations.  It’s an inflatable solar powered LED lantern that takes very little sunlight and lasts forever.  If you don’t already own one I highly suggest you add one (or ten) to your preps immediately.  These things can be life savers in emergency situations.




Day 2

The first thing that I realized on day two was that candles suck! Most of the ones we had set up around the house had burned significantly, even though we blew them all out before bed to prevent a fire hazard. A lot of them were more than half way gone. That’s when I realized I had completely forgotten about my oil lamp project and hadn’t even bothered to set any up the night before. I went ahead and filled them up with lamp oil so they would be ready to go for the next night.

Although oil lamps are more of a long term solution they still present a significant fire hazard.  Since fire services are likely to be unavailable at worst or extremely delayed at best in a disaster situation it’s better to err on the side of caution on not take risks regarding fire safety in times like these.  That being said, I would highly recommend investing in some LED tea light candles and solar lanterns for your emergency lighting needs.  Avoid open flames as much as possible.

Since we are just coming into fall and the temperatures are already starting to drop outside it was a chilly night with no heat flowing through the vents.  We managed to stay warm through the night with extra blankets and a nice sleeping bag over the top of us. But there was definitely a nip in the air we started stirring and preparing for the day.  I didn’t realize how fast the heat dissipates once you turn the furnace off and it didn’t take long for us to notice.

We bundled up in sweaters, warm pajama bottoms and extra thick socks to keep us comfortable as we started breakfast.  I knew that once I got a nice hot cup of coffee to sip on everything would seem more manageable.  So I got started heating up a pot of water while my husband gathered some food from the storage room.  The eggs and milk had been sitting in the warm fridge all night and we didn’t want to take a chance getting sick so we decided to tap into the food storage supply of freeze dried eggs and hash browns.

We fired up the little propane powered Coleman stove we used for camping trips and started cooking.  I will say that it seemed like the water took ages to come to a boil.. maybe it was because I was sitting there staring at it the whole time almost as if I was trying to will it to boil with my mind.  Or maybe it was just that I really needed a cup of coffee but I would definitely recommend investing in one of those little Jetboil stoves that hikers use to heat water quickly.  The camp stove and kitchen pot works fine if you’ve got plenty of time on your hands but if patience isn’t your strong suit a jet boil stove is well worth the investment.

As we were digging through our camping supplies we found an old propane floor heater that we used to use in our Alaknak tent before we invested in a camp trailer.  It works pretty well in small spaces so we decided to bring it inside and put it to use warming up the house so we could remove some layers of clothing as we continued our day.  While the propane heater works fine as a temporary solution it does pose a fire hazard and isn’t an efficient heating source for larger areas.  Since our house doesn’t have a fireplace I think investing in wood stove for the basement would be a very smart move for future situations.  If you don’t have a place in your home to install one permanently they do sell portable wood burning stoves for tents that are reasonably priced.  I’ve read many positive reviews on this wood burning camp stove from Amazon and it comes highly regarded by many other popular bloggers in the survivalist community.

Once the sun started to come out and the day warmed up we decided it would be good to get out of the house and get some exercise.  So we grabbed the dog and the kiddo and set out on a hike to keep our minds occupied and look for edible plants or other resources we might be able to use.  We brought along our recurve bow and my daughters professional sling shot for practice.  We might as well put all of our free time to good use while we’re at it and work on our survival skills.  Although I know many of you will laugh and say “a slingshot, really?” I think that teaching our children how to use a sling shot to catch small game can be an invaluable skill to have in a survival situation.  While I know it’s no match for a firearm it can be a great tool for covert survival in the wilderness as you can still hunt and provide food and sustenance while avoiding detection.

We spent most of the day roaming and hunting and my daughter located some morel mushrooms under a great big pine tree near the top of the mountain we climbed.  As we made our way back home we brainstormed ideas on the best way to cook and season our tasty treasures once we got back.

After our delicious meal of wild mushroom stroganoff we settled into our pj’s and curled up together in our big king sized bed with full bellies and peaceful hearts.  It’s funny what a little bit of quiet can do for your soul.  After only two days without the hustle and bustle of typical everyday life I was already starting to feel less stressed and more relaxed as nodded off to sleep with my happy little family.

Notes from the second day:

Always keep extra blankets, sleeping bags and pillows on hand for warmth.  You can’t go wrong with a back up supply of thermal underwear, wool socks, gloves, jackets, coats, scarves, hats and earmuffs. Be sure to keep enough on hand for everyone in the family and make sure they are easily accessible.

Day 3

When I woke up on the third day the first and only thing in my mind was how bad I wanted a hot shower. I mean one day without bathing is fine, two is pushing it but three is just miserable. My hair felt so greasy and I just wanted to get clean.

My husband and daughter were still sleeping so soundly that I didn’t dare disrupt them.  I slipped out of bed to let the dog out to go to the bathroom.  I couldn’t help but reflect on the past few days of life without electricity in our home.  It was difficult to live comfortably without the typical modern conveniences that we’ve all become accustomed to and this was only a mock blackout.  No threat of gangs banging down our door or looters breaking in through a window while we sleep as I’m sure it would be in a real blackout situation.  How hard would it really be to survive such an apocalyptic scenario?  Could we survive?

Once I snapped back into reality I began the daunting task of heating up water for a bath the sound of pots and pans clanging around as I looked for my large canning pot must’ve woken up my husband.  As I stood there in my terrycloth bath robe looking helpless he walked up and put his arms around me “We made it” he said with an accomplished look in his eyes.  “Did we?” I replied, “I feel like all we did was realize just how much more we need to do in order to be prepared for the real thing.”

“Better to find out now rather than wait until it’s too late”…

Conclusion

We learn best by doing – plain and simple. I’ve always been a very visual person, I need to see something. To feel it, to hold it my hands, to actually try something to really get it.  The best way to determine weaknesses in your prepping strategy is to put them to the test by setting up a mock scenario to discover anything you might have missed.

Luckily we had all been able to bathe the night before we started the blackout in preparation for 3 days without water. But what are the chances you’re going to have a chance to prepare like that? It’s not like there’s going to be some kind of warning and Lester Holt is going to come blaring across our T.V. screens “Good evening America, we just thought we’d go ahead and give everyone a heads up: we’re in the final 24 hours now, it’s time to really get your stuff together before TSHTF.” Chance are, when disaster strikes it’s going to be completely out of nowhere and likely without any type of warning at all. That’s why it’s better to really keep your stuff together, inventoried, organized and complete at ALL times. Don’t slip up and deplete your water supply thinking that you can just go and restock tomorrow. What happens if tomorrow is a day too late? Always keep enough of everything on hand so that if something were to happen that very moment, you wouldn’t be in a hurry to run to the store and stock up on those last precious items that you accidentally let yourself run out of.

Check out this great video from National Geographic which portrays a blackout scenario in America:

American Blackout Documentary
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Additional Resources

11 Survival TV Shows Worth Watching

120 Useful Books for Your Survival Library

Cody Lundin Interview – When All Hell Breaks Loose

Collapse Documentary (2010)

10 Bad A** Sniper Rifles

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