Well Water in an Emergency

After failure of the electrical grid due to an EMP, lack of water will be the first effect to seriously concern people. Most homes have been built far from natural water sources, and water is heavy to carry any distance. Bottled drinks will quickly disappear, and then people will start to drink from questionable sources. Infections such as Giardiasis will cause diarrhea and further dehydration. Without power or natural gas, it will be hard for people to boil enough water to meet their needs.

Water wells, where they exist, are the best solution to this problem. Well water is naturally filtered by at least 20 feet of soil to remove dangerous microorganisms. The only question is how to bring this water up so we can use it.

The cheapest solution is, after the emergency begins, to draw out the submersible pump (present in most wells) and then lower and raise well buckets to bring up the water. If the well is not too deep and the pipe is plastic, removing the submersible pump can be done by hand. Otherwise, you need to set up a tripod and use a hand winch, which would probably be a challenge for most people. Well buckets are tall skinny buckets with a flapper check valve in the bottom so they can fill from the bottom. They can be bought for about $80 (e.g., Lehman’s) or you can make your own from a 5 foot length of 3” diameter PVC sewer pipe, a pipe cap, and a flap of rubber or plastic.

An alternative to well buckets, for wells shallower (to the static water level) than about 50 feet, is to install a hand pump. For static water levels of 23 to 50 feet, you still have to remove the submersible pump. You replace it with a hand lever connected to a rod that goes down the well to actuate a submersible piston pump. This is of moderate cost but involves some work. If you have a well dedicated to the use of a hand pump, you can pay a professional to do all this work before the onset of an emergency.

If your static water level is less than 23 feet deep, you don’t have to remove your nonfunctional electric submersible pump. Instead, you install a pitcher pump at the top. This pump sucks water up through the unpowered submersible pump. You can install it yourself at moderate cost (a high quality Heller Aller pitcher pump with brass cylinder and hose bib costs $306) or you can pay a professional to do it for you. Being able to install an emergency system ahead of time is a real advantage over trying to do it after the onset of disaster.

If your static water level is down more than about 50 feet, hand pumps become too hard to operate. Well buckets still work, though removing an existing deep submersible pump after the onset of an emergency becomes more challenging. A second well could be drilled exclusively for the use of well buckets, or you could use an alternative electrical power source to power your existing submersible pump.

Alternative power system components – modern generators, solar cells, and inverters – are vulnerable to electromagnetic pulses generated by high altitude nuclear bursts. If a HEMP is your concern, you need to put this equipment in Faraday cages until after the EM pulse, then take it out and assemble it. Make sure that your pump electrical control does not include a microprocessor, or it could also be zapped by the HEMP.

Consider including a water storage tank or extra bottled water in your plans. This would fill your needs after the onset of an emergency but before you have your new system installed and working.

Attack on Electrical Substations

In April of 2013, there was a midnight attack on California’s Metcalf Substation, an electrical power distribution center serving San Jose. This event was recently reported in an article in the Wall Street Journal after 10 months under wraps for fear of inspiring copycat crimes. The attack involved perhaps three gunmen who targeted and disabled 17 transformers. Though the power company was able to bypass the substation, the transformers were down for a month.

If more than one substation had been attacked, the outcome would have been much more serious. For example, imagine that the 21(?) perpetrators of 9/11 had carried out a coordinated attack. They could have disabled 7 substations and caused grid failure over a large area. I imagine this would lead to considerable hardship and economic damage, though not the kind of die-off that would result from a nuclear-generated EMP.

Notice that the protection needed to forestall a physical attack on the grid is different from that intended to harden against an EMP attack. So it is not clear that the Metcalf attack will prompt power companies to harden against EMP. A successful attack that caused hardship might, however, prompt government to ask the broader question of how to make our power systems less vulnerable. It is frustrating that it might take a major disaster to motivate our nation to prepare for a catastrophic disaster.

Even if we were to start hardening our critical infrastructures tomorrow, it may already be too late for us to prepare to deflect an attack which could come at any time.

Book Review: EMP – Protect Family, Homes, and Community

This book by Don White and Jerry Emanuelson attempts to provide technical guidance to those who would like to protect their homes from the destructive effects of a nuclear electromagnetic pulse attack. Both authors are electrical engineers, and so are better equipped than most to understand the EMP publications released by the US military.

Yet the critical technical details are often elusive. The book emphasizes the importance of solar photoelectric systems, but the authors have not quite located a protective mesh for the face of solar panels which screens out an EMP yet admits light. A supplement at  http://www.futurescience.com/emp/AppendixD.html suggests stainless steel mesh, but adds that it doesn’t fully protect the panels from EMP and is likely to create a corrosion problem where it joins the aluminum frame. Until these details are worked out, the best solution may be to keep the panels and other vulnerable system components in a Faraday cage until after the EMP has done its damage, then pull them out and assemble them. The same could be done with spares for the vulnerable components of other critical electrical appliances.

The subtitle of the book is “Using Shielded Solar Rooftops and Shielded Rooms and Buildings to Protect our Modern Lifestyle.” Yet aside from us fleeing the country, I see no way to protect our modern lifestyle if an EMP hits us. A more reasonable goal is simply to survive, and to do that, we need to focus on meeting our most basic needs instead of worrying about whether our automated clothes washer works.

That said, you have to admire anyone who even attempts to tackle the problems posed by an EMP attack.

UPDATE – A reader points out that page 155 of the book lists companies that supply protective mesh for solar hardening.

Helping Others

Imagine that you are a philanthropist who wants to blunt the effects of an EMP catastrophe. You can’t save everyone, but you want to do more than just save your own family. What should you do?

The most important thing you should do is save the farmers. Without them, everyone will starve. To save the farmers, you also need to save people who support farmers, such as rural policemen, farm equipment repair specialists, and small power system specialists.

Beyond the question of whom you should save from a practical standpoint, there is the moral perspective. Who deserves to survive? I believe one answer to this is, you should help those who help themselves, who recognize the danger and take steps to prepare. A family can stock food for a possible disaster, but it is hard for a single family to defend itself from looters. So help such families band together to defend themselves.

EMP-Hardened Power Systems

The best system for a post-Pulse world – solar photoelectric – would be destroyed by an EMP weapon. The high frequency E1 wave would burn out the solar panels, the inverter, and the charge controller. The E3 wave (which is equivalent to that generated by a geomagnetic storm) might damage some of these components as well, if the system were tied into the grid as most systems are. This means that the components of a photoelectric system should be protected in a Faraday Cage until after the Pulse, then brought out and assembled. The wiring, batteries, and panel support system can be put into place ahead of time to minimize later assembly work. The batteries can handle the Pulse, but since they might be sitting around unused for years, they should be purchased dry. The sulfuric acid should be added only when the system is assembled. Otherwise, the batteries will go bad in a few years even if they are unused.

The best rainy-day backup for the photoelectric system, and one that can be activated quickly, is a propane-fueled electric generator. Propane, unlike gasoline and even diesel fuel, can be stored indefinitely without going bad. Modern fixed generator sets are controlled by microelectronics, and so most generators would have to be encased in a Faraday Cage, with no penetrations (power out cord and propane tubing would have to be by a quick connect pigtail folded inside the cage). Most of these generators are started by a battery which is normally kept charged by a connection to the grid. This means the generator has to occasionally be connected to the grid, or it has to be periodically run such that part of its output is directed back to the unit to recharge the battery. In fact, generator vendors recommend their units be run every week or month in any case. So generators large enough to power a house require maintenance. They are also noisy, and the high rpm ones don’t last too long. Though propane doesn’t degrade, there is no guarantee that you will be able to find more when your tank runs dry. For these reasons, the photoelectric system is the more important one.

During the pre-Pulse period be glad you can tap any amount of power at any time by simply connecting to your local electrical grid. But put in a transfer switch and an alternative system if you want to be prepared for hard times.

The Improvident

After an EMP disaster, looting is likely to be one of your greatest concerns, and respect for private property in your locale becomes of prime importance. Only if you know you can eat what food you have grown or stockpiled will you build up a stockpile in the first place. Respect for private property implies laws against stealing, but it goes beyond law; it includes upholding the moral right to what you have earned and a moral condemnation of those who expect others to feed them.

Part of the reason we do not prepare for disasters is we are afraid the government will not protect our food stockpiles from thieves, and indeed may confiscate them. Our politicians do not respect private property, and neither do many of our neighbors. People are used to getting things free from the government, and many in fact think it is their moral right to do so. They imagine that if there is a disaster, the government should and will take care of them. So why should they do anything to prepare? They occupy the moral high ground, or so they believe.

The brutal truth is, there is no practical alternative to each family setting aside its own stores for a rainy day. In a major crisis, most people who don’t do so are going to starve, and there is nothing to be done about that. What is doable is protecting the provident from the improvident, the makers from the takers, so at least those who are virtuous can survive. As things stand, government cannot be counted on to protect the provident; it doesn’t even admit the danger exists, and it will fall apart or turn predatory when disaster strikes.  What is needed is a coming together of neighbors (or friends sharing a house) who agree not to steal or beg from one another, but instead for each home to stock its own larder, and for the neighborhood to mount a common defense against the improvident.

What I’ve seen instead is the mindset that “we’re all in this together, so we should share. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” This mindset provides no incentive (beyond vague social approbation) to save, to be provident. It works only in a society where there is plenty of food.

When you look for partners in your efforts toward emergency preparedness, look for those with a well-stocked pantry. Try to pick companions who favor justice over mercy. Enshrine respect for private property as a leading moral principle in the hard reality that follows a catastrophe.

International Relations

If Europe or Asia were hit with an EMP attack, within weeks Americans would mount a massive rescue effort. So if America were nuked (and Europeans and Asians weren’t), would they soon arrive with food?

The US is the world’s leading agricultural exporter, in particular of the critical commodities wheat, corn, and soybeans. A disaster hitting any of the major food-exporting nations – US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand – would trigger such high prices for food that people in many countries would starve. So however much Europeans and Asians might want to help, they are unlikely to have significant food surpluses they could send – certainly not enough to feed 300 million people.

In the event of an attack on the US, America’s foreign military personnel would likely redeploy to the continental US. This could be helpful; they could work to impose order in farm country and around fuel and power infrastructure, and help to funnel whatever international aid becomes available to these areas. Yet in many parts of the world, it is US forces that maintain the peace, so without these forces in place, war is likely to break out overseas. This too will impede foreign food production, trade, and the willingness of our friends overseas to help us.

If anything saves the US from a nuclear HEMP, it will be the realization by our enemies that if they attack us, they will starve. Of course, that won’t protect us from a powerful geomagnetic storm.

Just Sail Away

Someone who lives on the coast could own a boat and simply sail away to a foreign land if an EMP disaster strikes.

One of the hardest parts could be getting to the boat before thieves hijacked it. If you were lucky, you would have a brief period of opportunity before thieves realized (along with everyone else) the severity of the crisis, but I think that period could be short – perhaps a few hours. Security people at a marina would likely desert their post if they realized the seriousness of the disaster, and they are not equipped to do much more than call the police in any case. I suppose one thing you could do is lock the wheel or disable the motor when you are not aboard (e.g., remove and hide some electrical cabling). You could also put up an “Out of service for repairs” sign so a thief would steal a different boat.

The safest thing would be to live on the boat, or to have it docked right outside or near your house. If some of the crew was there and some wasn’t, it might be necessary to leave the dock and let the remainder of the crew row out to you, or even swim out. For crew members living far away, you might have a pickup point and time prearranged, perhaps at night somewhere far from any marina.

Another danger of sailing off in your own boat is piracy. You would want your boat to be well armed (and armored in places?). It would be impossible to outrun a fast pirate motorboat , even with a motor yacht, most of which have a range of only a few hundred miles and so could not get you to Europe or S. America anyway. In desperate times you would have to keep a watch day and night, and never take the boat out with fewer than two crew members aboard (one to steer and one to repel boarders).

Your destination would be an area not directly affected by the EMP, ideally one that is both civilized and does not import much of its food from the US. You could bring gold with you in your boat, and it might be good to have gold stashed in a bank at your destination as well. South America and Europe are possibilities.

This is only a solution for small numbers of people, since only super yachts are designed for more than eight on board.

Operational Security

Ensuring operational security (OPSEC – preparing for an emergency secretly so no one will later seize your supplies) is usually at odds with other objectives in emergency preparedness. So you don’t want to do more of it than necessary – and it isn’t always necessary. For example, in an EMP crisis, all threats become local, so it doesn’t matter that an online food supplier knows you stockpiled lots of food. On the other hand, it matters a great deal whether the local police chief knows you stockpiled food.

The government is monitoring the lives of the citizenry ever more closely, and the best hope for quietly preparing for an emergency is that officials will continue to discount the possibility of a really serious crisis. If instead officials saw a crisis coming, they might require everyone to disclose how much food they have stored. For example, if a terrorist nation releases a nuclear EMP over Europe, then local US officials might require everyone to disclose any stockpiles beyond what officials consider adequate. Once an EMP crisis has already occurred in an area, communications breakdowns make it too late for such threats to be effective there.

From the outside, a house with a basement full of emergency supplies doesn’t look any different from a house without such supplies. What is hard to hide is preparations for defending those supplies. Modern houses are not designed for defense, and would be shredded in a firefight. A defensive perimeter has to be established outside the house, and to meet the demands of operational security, it cannot look like a medieval city wall. It has to look like the raised planting bed for a garden, perhaps only a few feet high – high enough to shelter prone defenders with rifles. Ideally it would be faced with masonry, or steep enough that a vehicle couldn’t plow its way over it. The shrubbery on the raised bed would not stop a bullet from hitting the house, but if dense enough, would make it hard for an attacker to see the house and target anyone. Breaks in the planting bed (for a driveway, or to the sidewalk) could be plugged with vehicles once a crisis has begun.

If you have enough land, and some part of it is obscured by trees, you can build a special-purpose retreat in the middle of the forest. Even then, it is important to make it look unlike a medieval castle. If no one else, at least the Planning Department personnel who approve the building permit and the construction workers who build it will tell all their friends about the fascinating project they are working on.

If you are a farmer, your cover is already blown. Everybody expects you to have food, and in a crisis will be headed your way. Your best hope is to make a deal with someone such as the local National Guard unit. They will take what they want, but are likely to spare you because they need you to grow food for them. If you have a smaller farm (or simply don’t want to depend on the National Guard), you may need to stockpile supplies and “harden” your farm in order to convince others to help defend you.

Protecting the Grid is Not Enough

It would be comforting to believe that if the government began a program to harden our critical infrastructures, that would solve all our problems. Yet it would take years before such hardening was complete, and meanwhile, we would be vulnerable. Actually, even after that we would be vulnerable. An EMP attack would destroy all the computers and control systems that produce our food and allow our banks to function. Home appliances would not work, even if there was power available. Companies could not operate, and would close. Everyone would be out of work. Communications would be down, and there would be massive confusion.

For this reason, it is necessary to harden critical infrastructures AND to build up inventories of food and critical electrical components. Better yet, work towards communications and control technologies which are highly resistant to EMP. Fiber optics should be used for all critical communications and to power control equipment (via photovoltaic cells) which is enclosed in Faraday cages. If your washing machine stops working, you can wash by hand. If your well pump or your neighbor’s farm equipment stops working, that’s a serious problem.