Puerto Rico Gets Norked

Puerto Rico's disaster is a dress rehearsal for what North Korea could do.

The Wall Street Journal reports:

More than a week after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, truckloads of diesel, food and medical supplies are moving at a crawl around the island. Damaged roads, broken communications and scarce fuel are forcing companies, government agencies and relief groups to take drastic steps to restore basic services.

Jacksonville, Fla.-based Crowley Maritime Corp., which is a major operator to Puerto Rico., had 4,100 containers with both relief supplies and commercial cargo waiting at the seaport on Thursday. Another carrier, TOTE Maritime, said earlier this week it had more than 3,000 shipping containers stacked up at the port awaiting transport...

Puerto Rico's electricity infrastructure was destroyed and its cellular grid remains crippled, making it difficult to coordinate relief efforts and to restock store shelves and gas station pumps. A nightly curfew and the need for armed escorts on valuable fuel shipments is also slowing progress, people involved in the relief effort say.  [emphasis added]

The logistical difficulties of getting containers to people who need what's in the containers may not seem very exciting, but it encapsulates the serious problem Puerto Rico is facing: beyond its lack of electricity, roads are blocked by fallen trees and electric poles and bridges are washed out, so it's hard to drive anywhere even if you had all the fuel you needed.

Even if all the roads and other physical infrastructure were intact, however, Puerto Rico would be in for a hard time purely because of lack of electricity; it's been reported that ordinary line power is completely destroyed across the entire island and won't be back in service for many months at the earliest.

Before Maria...
...and after.

The island hasn't gone totally dark thanks to diesel generators, but there is much less electricity available than before the storm and the generators will stop if the fuel runs out.  Even if the cell towers weren't knocked over, their batteries would have run out by now so there'd be no cell service.  Old-fashioned telephones would also be unavailable for lack of power even if their wires were still up which they probably aren't.  Without communications, it's impossible to call for help from law enforcement, fire departments, or from medical first responders; it is reported that there are whole towns which remain entirely uncontacted even now, days after Maria left.

By now, all frozen food has melted and been ruined, along with medicines such as insulin which have to be kept cool; food that won't spoil won't last forever, especially if it's the only thing available for anyone to eat.  Even if a gas station had plenty of fuel, pumping it out of underground tanks requires electricity.  The lack of electricity would cause huge problems even if the grid was the only thing that had been damaged, completely aside from all the other hurricane destruction.

Some of the wires and poles may be salvageable, but most if not all the transformers were damaged when the poles fell over, and they'll have to be replaced.  The best estimates we've seen is that it will take six months or more to restore Puerto Rico's electrical grid even with the world's strongest economy behind the effort.  Americans can usually beat such estimates if the government gets out of the way, but it will still be a long time before the lights come back on.

Dress-Rehearsal?

The Puerto Rican experience should be particularly captivating because of a threat from the North Korean ballistic missile tests which hasn't been discussed enough in the popular press.  A nuclear weapon detonated high in the atmosphere, at an altitude which the Norks have demonstrated that they can reach, would wreck most of our electric grid through a phenomenon known as Electro-Magnetic Pulse (EMP).  Our electric grid would be in put into pretty much the same shape as Puerto Rico's in a second or two.

The Wall Street Journal notes that they don't even need a missile: the Norks could put the South's electrical grid or most of ours out of action from a balloon without harming themselves because their electric grid is so much smaller than ours:

According to physicist David Albright, the founder and president of the Institute for Science and International Security, the North Koreans have between 13 and 30 nuclear weapons and can build as many as five more every year. If Mr. Kim were to detonate one of these bombs in the atmosphere 40 miles above Seoul, it could inflict catastrophic damage on South Korea’s electric power grid, leading to a prolonged blackout that could have deadly consequences. ...

"Even a balloon-lofted warhead detonated at 30 kilometers altitude could blackout the Eastern Grid that supports most of the population and generates 75 percent of US electricity. Moreover, an EMP attack could be made by a North Korean satellite."  [emphasis added]

The Norks don't need to worry about EMP.

EMP has a long history which demonstrates its stark reality.  Many records of the first nuclear test in 1945 were lost because of bogus signals generated by the nuclear explosion.  Enrico Fermi had expected this and the lines were heavily shielded, but the insulation wasn't good enough.  Power transformers won't work if they're that heavily insulated, so there isn't much we can do to defend against this except to keep it from happening.

A 1962 high-altitude test in the remote Pacific knocked out about 300 streetlights, set off numerous burglar alarms, and damaged a microwave link in Hawaii, nearly 900 miles from the explosion.  Most of the tube-based electronics survived.

Traveling at the speed of light, an EMP pulse is far too fast to be blocked by ordinary circuit breakers or surge protectors.  Being powered off gives some protection, but the transistors in smart phones are so small that it doesn't take a very high induced voltage to damage them, and the silicon in solar cells which are exposed to the atmosphere isn't going to be much better off.  Wires and poles wouldn't sustain much damage, but with all the pole-mounted transformers fried, putting the grid back together would be difficult, particularly since nobody would have working cell phones anymore.

Ponder the logistics of replacing all the transformers.  They're pretty reliable, so new ones are made only to replace old ones that burn out or to get power to new customers.  Even if we had the manufacturing capacity to make a great many more transformers very fast, how would we get raw materials to the plant where they're made with gas stations not being able to pump fuel out of their underground storage tanks?

Just as Puerto Rico was able to get its port working again pretty fast, so we would be able to import crude oil, but how would we make more fuel with the control systems in our refineries fried?  How would we pump the fuel where it's needed without working motor controls in all the pumping stations?

Puerto Rico has the benefit of a mostly comfortable climate, aside from the occasional hurricane of course.  Most of the continental United States is not so blessed: what would happen in case of a winter EMP attack?

Most northern houses are heated with either oil or natural gas, but all furnaces have electrical controls.  Some crusty old-timers have wood stoves which are totally manual, but how would we chop all that firewood without gasoline for our chain saws and wood splitters?  We simply don't have enough axes or skilled ax-wielding homeowners to keep ourselves warm, and anyway, firewood has to season for a year or more before it's really ready.  You can heat with green wood, but it takes a lot more wet wood to stay warm than you'd need if you had dry wood.

(Not) Learning from History

This is actually not an unprecedented event: Sunspots caused EMP in 1859 in what's known as the Carrington Event, but in what was then a very early-stage technological world, the effects were not nearly as severe as they would be today.

From August 28 to September 2, 1859, a number of sunspots caused aurora Borealis, a.k.a. the northern lights, to be visible as far south as sub-Saharan Africa.  The technology workers of the day, telegraph operators, received shocks, and some were able to transmit messages with their power supplies cut off just from the magnetic-electrical energy from the sun.

The electric grid was a lot simpler in 1859 than it is now, but there was considerable damage; there were many reports of telegraph equipment overheating from the static and catching fire.  In June 2013, a team from Lloyd's of London and the Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER) agency used data collected during this time to estimate that the cost of recovering from a similar flare today would be between $.6 and 2.6 trillion-with-a-T in the United States alone.

It's hard to estimate exactly what the unfortunate consequences would be if our electric grid were knocked out, whether by the Norks or by the Sun.  The Puerto Rican experience will provide information on the short and medium-term effects of the loss of electricity - not that we don't already know it'll be bad, but it may be useful to know just how bad.  The data will give us a better idea of the cost of recovering from a high-altitude EMP (HEMP).

Not only would the monetary costs of a HEMP would be astronomical, many people would die due to difficulties with communication and food distribution.  How many would die in New York City if electricity were cut off for, say, a month?  How many Manhattanites would be able to walk to the gardens of New Jersey - and how much edible food is in those gardens when there are millions of untrained and desperate people rooting around in them?  How many buses would be needed to evacuate them all once the electric-powered subways were out of action?

The countryside would not be much better off: most modern rural houses get water from deep wells which would be useless without electricity, not to mention the need for electricity to pump water to irrigate farms to grow food for the coming year.  Without water, people die of thirst in a week or two, no matter how much non-perishable food, guns, and bullets survivalists have stashed away.

Kim Jong Un, a.k.a. Rocket Man, may be crazy, but as we know, even crazy people are smart enough to do mass shootings in victim-disarmament zones.  Let's hope we never found out just how bad it would be for most of the United States to be as electrically challenged as the island of Puerto Rico is today.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Foreign Affairs.
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