Brad Wardell's views about technology, politics, religion, world affairs, and all sorts of politically incorrect topics.

There’s a show on National Geographic called “Doomsday Preppers”. I’ve never watched it. But I have read a number of blogs from people on the subject and I’ve become convinced that most people, even those into “prepping”, haven’t thought through what would be the likely, and even predictable, steps our society would take as it self-destructed.

The doomsday scenarios I have seen discussed revolve around one of the topics below:

  • Economic collapse
  • Nuclear attack
  • Stellar impact (comet/asteroid)
  • EMP attack
  • Solar EMP event (Carrington Event)

I don’t feel qualified to discuss the likelihood of any of those things. I do, however, feel sufficiently qualified to say that there is one general scenario that I think is likely enough that it bears discussing: The collapse of our electrical grid and the consequences of that collapse.

A few years ago, I started doing research for a project on was premised on the fall of our civilization.  What could cause it? Was it plausible? What would it look like?

What I discovered was that our own civilization was far more fragile than I ever imagined. What’s worse, unlike the dramatic scenarios I read about, the most likely series of events would instead of a horrifying, gradual descent in which people didn't even realize that civilization was collapsing even as it was occurring.

In essence, our civilization dies as if it were a frog in water that was slowly brought to a boil.

Why guessing the scenario is irrelevant

There are a lot of different scenarios that could cause the power grid to be taken out.  I remember the blackout of 2003. It affected 55 million people and the power was out for 2 days. This all happened because some power lines in Ohio came in contact with some overgrown trees. Seriously.

55 million people lost power for 2 days because of a cascading failure that boiled down to some power lines getting tangled up with trees.  Hence, the specific trigger for a power grid collapse is less important than knowing the consequences of it.

General parameters

For our purposes, let’s just assume that the power grid has been damaged by something that will take 90 days to repair. Cars still work. Anything that wasn’t connected to the grid still works (like gas generators). Let’s assume this whole thing happens in August -- that tends to be when the electrical grid is under the most stress anyway.

Week 1: No big deal

The first few days are a party. The food in the refrigerator is going to go bad anyway so there’s a lot of BBQ’s. People talk about how this event is helping restore a sense of community. It’s like an extended camping trip in some ways. If only they knew.

The only friction that comes up at this point is that everything has to be bought in cash. People running to the store to buy their own generators (which sell out on the first day) are having to buy them in cash because credit card processing is down. Inconvenient.

By the end of the first week, the stores have sold out of their inventory of food along with other items one would expect to need “just in case”. Every army surplus store gets cleared out. No looting. Cash and carry.

Week 2: Some people have run out of water

It’s in week 2 that things start to become widely unpleasant.  Personally, I think a lot of people would start to be seriously concerned after day 2 but for the sake of argument, let’s assume most people tough out that first week.

Every real television station is still broadcasting. They have backup generators that are hooked up via natural gas and the natural gas pipelines are working just fine, for now. The gas stations are still working too. They have backup generators that run off gasoline. So people who need gasoline or diesel for their generators are doing fine as long as people have cash to pay for it. That also means cars can still get gas.

So the good news is that people are still being informed on the status of the blackout. The bad news is that they don’t know how long it’s going to take to restore power because it turns out that most of the transformers on the grid were damaged.

If you live in a major city, things aren’t so good. There’s no running water for most people.  If you live in the suburbs, there’s no running water either but those with houses can tap into their hot water heaters or have some local pond or something that, if they’re smart, they’ll boil first.

The federal, state, and local governments are bringing in water but it’s slow going, chaotic, and tense. The government is setting up relief centers in urban areas to supply food and water. The problem, however, is that there are a finite number of generators and, for the time being, no new ones are being made. The ability to fix anything that breaks down is compromised.

In summary, the urban areas are a bit scary because no power means reduced security and no independence but at least there are relief areas to walk to.  Suburbs don’t have the relief centers but still, generally have access to water and “community” food stocks are still holding up. People can drive their cars to the relief centers to pick up dry food goods and water bottles.

The death toll is far less than it could be. People who need assisted living or are vulnerable to heat related stress are the worst off. It’s easy to forget that large swaths of the United States are only comfortable thanks to air conditioning.

Week 3: Fraying

If you live out in the country, none of this is that big of a deal yet. You have generators. You have water sources. Some people, mostly suburbanites that decided to move into the country, have run out of food but they’re probably being supported by their neighbors. At least, I like to think so.

The suburbs, however, are fraying. Most people are out of food and are now flooding into the cities to those relief centers. While water is not a problem there, food is.  That’s because our distribution system in 2012 is based on just in time delivery. It’s very power hungry and the lack of a power grid is creating a lot of holes that are not easily patched.

Put yourself in this itself in the situation for moment.  It’s been 15 days without electricity. You have no more cash on hand. You’re out of food. You have some gallon containers of boiled water. Your car still has gas but you no longer have a way to get any more. You’re only 5 miles from the nearest relief center but you hear from neighbors that they’re now handing out MREs instead of “normal” food.

What do you do? Well, a lot of people have just moved their families to camping out near one of these relief camps. Should you do that?

Week 4: The Unraveling begins

So 22 days into the black out the scale of the problem is well known. Thank goodness communication still works. In the various EMP scenarios, there’s no communication.

On the other hand, communication still works.

A lot of the electrical transformers are out. This in turn damaged a lot of the grid infrastructure. It’s all repairable except that some of the parts can’t easily be replaced and that the supply of spare parts is very finite. As a result, certain parts of the grid have been restored.


The US power grid

Since communications still works, assume that the government has directed that the limited spare parts be used to restore the power grid in the most populated areas. This means the major urban areas, the east coast and the west coast.

This creates some sub-scenarios.  Do people migrate to those zones? Do those zones act as logistical bases to send out supplies?

I think we can surmise a few things here:

First, a lot of the equipment, having been running 24/7 for the past month, is going to start to break down. Those relief centers are going to start running out of food to supply. Water deliveries will start to become a problem as the number of vehicles available start to dwindle. Absenteeism is going to start to become a serious problem throughout this logistical network. To make a long story short, the patch work of relief centers is going to start to break down. This also means the delivery of fuel to gas stations and other consumables that rely on our vast, electrically powered, logistical infrastructure will start to come to a halt.

Second, a lot of people are going to start dying. The ability to supply medication in a timely manner is gone. If 15,000 people in France can die from a heat wave, one can imagine what would be happening in the American south in late August with no air conditioning.

Third, security will have started to seriously break down. Those that recall the problems in the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina can probably imagine what will be happening in those vast camp grounds surrounding every relief center – especially as supplies begin to dwindle.

And we’re only 22 days into this…

And mind you, we’re only 22 days in.  If an event occurred that physically damaged the power grid, particularly some of the very expensive, hard to replace, hard to manufacture elements of it, we’d be looking at large swaths of the population being without power for months.

There are a lot of variables that come into play and the further we go out, the more speculative we have to become. Here are some of the questions that would have a lot to do with the outcome:

  1. Is this a worldwide issue? Just North America? Just the Eastern and Western Interconnect?
  2. How effective would the local/state/federal government be in delivering vital supplies to population centers and how long could it maintain those supplies?
  3. If transportation is still available, what would be the migration patterns? What percent would stay put versus move to where power is versus would camp out at a relief center?
  4. How quickly would violence arise on a scale to disrupt or event overwhelm local authority?
  5. How long would secondary elements of our infrastructure function without the grid (utility companies that rely on regular deliveries of supplies and components to function, communication grids that rely on power)
  6. What is the MTBF of various types of backup generators?
  7. To what level would people be able to obtain more cash and/or use credit cards if the grid went down?


Week 5: It Falls apart

Depending on the answers from above, it’s about week 5 that things start to go to hell. 

For our purposes we’re going to assume the following going forward:

  • It’s a worldwide issue
  • The government aid goes as well as it possibly can (i.e. benefit of the doubt)
  • Non-Cash payment is a significant issue where the grid remains down (not that it’ll matter much longer)
  • Best-case scenario regarding the rise of mobs, looting, and gangs (i.e. benefit of the doubt).


The second month

  • Think you can hold off the hordes of starving because you have guns and a fortified house?
  • Should you migrate to where they’ve restored the grid or should you stay put or should you “go to that cottage your grandma has”?
  • How serious and how fast will things get violent?

Join the discussion

I’d love to hear from you in the comments area.  Corrections to my data. Supplemental information. Things I haven’t thought of. Link others to this article to get others who are knowledgeable on this topic to have access to it.



Comments (Page 1)
on May 29, 2012

Day 1:  Pack up the car and stay with family members who aren't affected by the power outage.

on May 29, 2012

You have 5 doomsday scenarios listed and added another one "total electricial failure". I have been hearing about doomsday scenarios way before you and i'm still here at 67.

It's something that I don't worry about and never have. Doesn't mean one will never happen but life has enough problems to take care of and worry about throughout time. It's also possible that a doomsday scenario may come up and someone can decide what to do about it or even control it such as a nuclear attack for example. The average person would never know about it so why even worry or think about it. You wrote this and yes an electricial failure is also possible as anything is possible. You aren't going to gain anything from your writing except for reading different thought and views. However there are many the get paid big dollars to invent and write all about the "what ifs"

Tomorrow isn't here yet so why worry about tomorrow or anything you can't control. This brings me to the what I call the famous saying. "We have a problem". How many times have you heard that. I have found through out my life that there are actually only a few problems. Saying that there are however a lot of situations and they end up being corrected or solved. So they weren't really a problem only a set back.

I really have never worried about something I can't control and the only thing that may enter my brain is the "Economic collapse" If this was one that took place we would still have to see if it was a problem or situation we could get under control.

BTW: This may be the first time I ever replied to anything like this but found the topic intriguing. 

on May 29, 2012

The Carrington Event happened just over a century ago.  If it happened today, it would take out our grid completely along with a % of our vehicles, backup generators, and other sensitive devices.  It was a worldwide event. It's not some far-fetched scenario that only happens once every million years.

on May 29, 2012

Are generators really that common-place? Where I'm from I've probably seen three in my entire life, all rented for some outdoor activity.


The city where I live suffered an outage a few years back that lasted half a day. Cars were the only things that worked. People got scared real quick (~2 hours). Nobody was looting after a few hours but most people were out in the streets trying to find out what was going on. There was a very odd tension in the crowds. The stores simply shut down and closed their doors - even if they could accept cash, there was no way to run stuff through the register. And also the obvious risk of theft - we don't think about it as long as the lights stay on, but indoors = very dark.


My personal guess is that violence would be inevitable a few days after people start running out of foods that can be stored. If it is during the winter people may start to freeze to death before that happens, depending on insulation and so on.

on May 29, 2012

If something does happen that is totally catastrophic I seriously doubt that the human race will see day 22 let alone try to figure out how to survive. 

You may disagree with me but there are enough 'crazies', as we like to call them, in the world that will see this as the end and will take what ever steps necessary to finish us all off.  Hell, we can't get along now without something like what you are presenting happening. 

Of course, I could be totally wrong in which case, have a great day.  

on May 29, 2012

I believe decentralization would occur. Federal government would be useful in the beginning, but by week 4 they'd probably be running a police state.

Depending on where & when you're at is how well you'd fare. Winter in NYC you might as well head for a relief center. Winter in rural Florida means time to hunker down...go hunting...harvest the citrus, purify water with pool chlorine or clorox. Keep in mind we've gone without power for weeks after hurricanes so we have an idea what to expect and most of us have stashed away supplies.The midwest (corn belt) likely has sufficient supplies to last at least 3 months.

Small towns would likely band together for the common good including defense/protection but big cities would become sanitation, no food, no water, Obama kind of hope (none).

I fully believe most rural folks would be fine after a period of adjustment (long as the ammo holds out cause we believe in the 2nd amendment). Urban & suburbanites would likely feed off of each other for a while and few would survive to the 90 day mark. Might be paradise when the lights come back on......


Are generators really that common-place? Where I'm from I've probably seen three in my entire life, all rented for some outdoor activity.

We had 3 major hurricanes within a month in 2004...after that you'd be hard pressed to find anyone without a generator where I live.

on May 29, 2012

Obviously the government will declare Marshall law (as outlined in March 16, 2012, executive order on national defense resource preparedness )

I'm not a real expert on being able to interpret the legalese of government documents, but from the way I read it, it looks like the government is going to confiscate any "stuff" they need (food, energy, weapons, etc).  I hear from my tin-foil hatted friends there are FEMA camps (and recently leaked documents confirming this) so..."they're" going to lock us all up some place.

I hate thinking about this crap, really.  My first husband was a survivalist (we had the year's worth of dried food stockpiled in the basement, the gas masks, the guns to protect our supplies and the whole 9 yards), so my head was thoroughly wrapped around this sort of thing for a while--there's just too much anxiety and negativity associated with that mindset.  I'm old now--if it all collapses, then I'll collapse with it.  Yeah, let the zombies come and bite me, and I'll join their shuffling mob so I don't have to keep fighting the inevitable.  What the hell kind of life is there worth to live if there is no juice to power Photoshop so I can keep skinning anyway?

on May 29, 2012

A) I'm not sure that the grid is as fragile as this; understand that telegraph wires in 1859 were uninsulated antennas.  Most of the power capacity of the grid now is also uninsulated, but has a distributed isolation system and phase fault control that drops the substations out if the power phase becomes more than a couple of degress off what it should be.   As soon as a coronal mass ejection starts to raise the voltage on the grid, most of it will shut itself off to protect itself; so I'm not sure that inverters, transformers, etc. will actually be damaged.  CMEs pass the earth in 20 minutes or so, the grid can be powered up sequentially, and be back online, with spot damaged being repaired like any othe weather related outage of the grid.

Satellites are also vulnerable, and represent a significant asset loss, both for telecom and GPS, and they could very well be destroyed if they were active.  However, with 17 hours to shut things down, its unlikely that most of the satellites will be in an active mode.  Single event upset latching on microelectronics only occurs if there's a voltage across the gate, so if the satellite shuts down, these kinds of radiation damage are unlikely to cause lasting damage.  The shuttle has flown through minor events like this before, and although it caused several of the laptops to freeze (and one to permanently become damaged), these were computers that were powered on at the time.  The backups to those computers worked just fine when they were powered up.

I think a more likely scenario is that, once a CME is noticed (and SOHO virtually guarantees that we'll know ahead of time), most of the satellites, and possibly even the GNAG will get shut off 1-2 hours before the first protons start to arrive.  We'll sit, powered down, while the storm passes, and hope that it passes at night for us (so we can see the beautiful aurora).  Then, next morning, we'll power back up the systems, see if anything's been broken, and fix or relaunch the damaged components (which we do with some regularity now, at least for the GPS systems).

The risk is almost totally with powered on systems.  If the CME is bad enough to damage a powered off electrical system, the radiation will be sufficient to cause irreperable genetic damage.  As a rule of thumb, modern electronics and systems are about 2Krad hard.  Most humans are about 1 rad hard.

Now, space rocks?  Them suckers would hurt.

on May 29, 2012

Interesting post Brad..


I suppose we survived on this planet long before electricity came about, we'll survive again.

Hell, just in my lifetime we spent a lot of time without it, no money to put in the meter under the stairs.. (UK)

It will suck badly, much like the smell of fresh cat crap, but we will survive.

well... the survivors will.


Typically, civilizations\empires\superpowers will last around 200 years, its about our time anyway.

And really, who doesn't relish the thought of foraging for beetles, racoon and snakes, drinking creek water and wiping ourselves with oak leaves.


Having said all that, I'll say this...I'm far more worried about worldwide economic failure..


Romney 2012



on May 29, 2012

We have an urban garden in our back field, generators, and survival skills.  And plenty of ammo for those trespassers.... 


I would consider it an extended camping trip

on May 29, 2012

Could you handle several hundred trespassers a day? Most of whom are armed and desperate?

on May 29, 2012

Is Stardock doing a soon-to-be post apocalyptic scenario game?

on May 29, 2012

Hello, I find the EMP topic to be very interesting, especially as pertaining to solar/geo-magnetic storms like the Carrington Event which, if memory serves me correctly, occurred in early September of 1859, and is named after the famous amateur British astronomer Richard Carrington. I have heard that a movie about this is scheduled for release over the next few months. There are numerous resources that can be useful in getting more information about EMP, namely a non-profit organization known as EMPActAmerica; their website is: Also, there is William Fortschen's excellent book One Second After, which gives a fairly accurate portrayal of life after an EMP incident. There is also the National Geographic Channels' 50-minute documentary entitled "Electronic Armageddon, based on UC Berkely Physicist Dr. Richard Muller's book "Physics For Future Presidents." The documentary can be had for $19.00 at The National Geographic Society's on-line store, and can also be viewed for free on the website. There are other resources, but these are the ones that come most readily to mind. I have thought for some time now that we have become far too dependent on advanced electronic technology in general, and micro-computers in particular, including in our newer motor vehicles. As in many areas of human life, an abundance of accurate information can be a valuable tool. Good luck, and best wishes to everybody here!

on May 29, 2012

The lights go out: What happens if the grid goes down?



we cook baked beans over a candle!!

on May 29, 2012

Probably a fundamental flaw in the scenario reasoning is the expectation of a continuing 'communication'.

That will be amongst the first thing to be replaced by hear-say and hysteria.

People will be convinced it is only affecting THEM and others are free/immune.

Resentment will lead to violence, fuelled admirably by the absurd prevalence of personal fire-arm ownership.

The most rapid cause of death will be man, not hunger, etc.



Yes, generators are probably more common than people imagine, but they're almost always fuelled by fossil fuel....something whose distribution will be severely hampered by the same power failure precipitating their use.


If power were to be lost on an effective GLOBAL level your best-by-far course of action is to practise you can be suitably comfortable while you kiss your arse goodbye.