A study conducted about three years ago noted that the majority of people have enough food in their homes to feed their household for about three days, and that seemingly stable societies are really just nine meals from anarchy. It is, in fact, a long-held theory on “prepper” sites that in just 72 hours of any significant crisis which takes down our ability to conduct commerce, we’d see a total destabilization of our society and way of life.
So said my son the other night in a telephone call. He reminded me how several years ago, the US Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) system crashed as a result of a political impasse in Congress, and millions of Americans around the country began immediately wondering where they would get their next meal. One woman, interviewed just minutes after she learned the system was no longer functioning, complained that she was unable to put food on the table. “How am I going to feed my family?” she asked, noting that she has six kids to feed.
My son reports that, even now, the supply chain is showing signs of breakdown. Sometimes, the food stores he frequents in northeast Florida experience shortages from an alarming number of suppliers, sometimes for weeks. We’ve become so dependent on “just in time” shipping and supply of our stores, it is extremely disruptive when the system doesn’t work smoothly.
Should a serious crisis strike we won’t have three days. It’ll be more like three hours, which is about how long it took panicked food stamp recipients with non-functioning benefits cards to completely raze the shelves of their local Walmarts or for panicked motorists to begin hoarding fuel.
When the EBT system crashes, nearly 50 million Americans panic across the country. But if the financial system is hit with a “glitch” or a cyber attack, access to the bank accounts and ATM machines of 300 million Americans would be restricted.
Depending on where you live and how much getting somewhere else is advisable, we’re not talking about cans of soup and peanut butter and crackers. While those items are indeed non-perishable, they aren’t really portable. In an emergency situation where you need to leave home in a hurry, canned soups and jars of peanut butter are going to be heavy. Those crackers will get smashed. You need a “72-Hour Kit”: four servings per day for 3 days for one person, airtight, compact, shelf-stable for years, and lightweight.
But consider this first: what of the days following the first three? You’d think you can make it three days without food, and you probably can, but what of the time beyond?
When food supplies are cut off, people’s irritability sets in within half a day. Imagine being cooped up for days with family or even strangers who are just as hungry and irritable as you are. Within one day—or less if you have blood sugar or other health issues—your ability to make good decisions is affected. Your cognitive processes are not firing on all cylinders, and in an emergency, you need to be able to think clearly.
Within two days, you’ll probably be experiencing gnawing stomach pains. And if the emergency—and lack of access to food—goes on past three days, forget about it. Within a week, you’re probably too weak to stand. Your vision becomes blurry. You won’t be able to think straight, much less do what you need to do to weather the emergency.
However, we don’t really consider that our smartphones and wireless device are connected to cell sites and cell towers. Which in turn are connected to the wireless operator’s main switching facility. All that needs lots of power, which after a blackout is provided by backup systems. If and when those systems run out of juice, at about 96 hours, we have a big problem.
On Thursday, September 8, 2011, an equipment failure in Arizona caused an electric utility cascade failure, leaving millions of people from the San Diego area in the dark. One moment, power was on for a several thousand square mile area. The next moment it was gone.
In August 2011, Hurricane Irene temporarily took out 6,500 cell phone sites on the east coast. At the end of October, a freak snowstorm left millions without power in parts of the Eastern Seaboard. Although weather problems are challenging, at least there’s usually some prior notice so utilities and cell operators can prepare. And there are often pockets where power is still available. When power goes down everywhere simultaneously, instantaneously, like it did in San Diego, it makes you think.
24-48 hours: Enter the information abyss. The next morning, many of us will not have cell service. Operators will get portable generators to key sites—but not all sites. After 48 hours, more of us are disconnected. Our TVs and cable modems don’t work—no power! Battery-powered radio? If you are one of the rare people who owns one, you’ll still have a problem. Radio stations are increasingly high tech, and guess what, most stations were off the air during the September San Diego blackout.
48-72 hours: Your wallet is empty and so is your fridge. How will you handle even simple purchases without power, communications or cash? As we increasingly transact via credit cards, online and even cell phones, cash has become much less prevalent. If the ATMs are down, and you don’t have enough emergency cash on hand, what do you do?
Already, it seems that for a broad range of demographics, especially those under 25, cash is already dead. Or, if there are emergency radio broadcasts and the broadcasts says that emergency help is located at a certain park in a certain city, what good is that information to a GPS reliant person who never learned to read a map and doesn’t own any maps?
72-96 hours: No gas, no water. Now what? Cars have run out of gas. The roads are so clogged, they’re non-functional. Public safety will be dealing with all of these issues — with a degraded communications infrastructure. And are the pumps from your local water facility still running? Remember, all of the sewage and water plants are increasingly automated. I don’t know about you, but I will be cranky by that point.
By 96 hours after the power shuts down, power better be turned on again, our connectivity restored, or we’ll be in the Stone Age.
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