March 22, 2023


What will you do when the lights go out — for a long time?

Jim Nowlan

Cyber-terrorism came to the front of my mind with the advent of the war in Ukraine. If cornered, a thug like Vladimir Putin might lash back with cyberwar tools. The Russians appear quite advanced at this, based on the many damaging hacks of American businesses that appear to be initiated from Russia.

Cyber war may simply be a problem for which there is no practicable solution, no matter what they tell you in MBA school. A cyber-attack on our electric grid may indeed be more devastating than a nuclear attack. We simply can’t live long or communicate without electricity. Scary to think about. But we must.

In 2015, respected journalist Ted Koppel published Lights Out, a sobering account of our nation’s lack of planning for a cyber-attack that takes down one or more of our three major electricity grids (basically, East, Midwest, West). Koppel’s well-placed sources say the grids are a half-century-old, and vulnerable. The experts Koppel talked with observe, soberly, that such an attack is not a matter of if, but when.

Koppel reports there are nations and, maybe worse, freelance hackers, who know how to knock out electrical grids, just as the United States and Israel knocked out Iran’s nuclear operations a few years back.

After interviewing the top cyber and political authorities in our nation, Koppel concludes no serious planning is being done, because: 1) government and private electric producers don’t want to share vital information; 2) the scope of how to provide for millions of people for weeks or months is too vast to get our arms around, and 3) we’ll wait until an attack actually happens, then we’ll try to figure out what to do. What will you do if you are without electricity for weeks, even months?!

So, I checked in with a top local emergency professional to see what is being done at the county level. Mat Schnepple is the director of the Office of Emergency Management for Henry-Stark counties in central Illinois. With deep experience as a fire chief, paramedic and hazardous materials commander, Schnepple is a blend of earnest Boy Scout and Chicago Bears linebacker, well-trained, decisive, the kind of guy you want in charge when things go down.

Schnepple says his teams of professionals and volunteers are ready to respond to 72-hour electric outages, with water, food, shelter and health care. But when I ask about blackouts that might last weeks or months to millions of people, Schnepple’s voice trails away.

As for us citizens, Koppel says we haven’t even reached the stage of apathy, which is vague awareness of the problem, plus a subconscious decision to do nothing about it. Sometimes there are no solutions. Thus, the brain tells us, rationally you might say, to put the likelihood of apocalypse out of our minds.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, that is, demand Congress and the president develop an expensive comprehensive plan. Sometimes, as with Civil Defense efforts to protect against a nuclear attack during the Cold War, the value lay in the message sent, as possibly a deterrent — that America was ready to respond, somehow, to a nuclear attack, then regroup, resist and retaliate.

I will get my 5-gallon cans of water and gasoline (the gas, not for a getaway — where would you go? — but to run the car as a generator), and a large box of meals ready-to-eat.

What do we do when the lights might go out? We wait until they go out. Then we’re screwed.

• Jim Nowlan is a former state legislator and aide to three unindicted Illinois governors. A retired professor of American politics, he writes a newspaper column on Understanding Illinois.

Jim Nowlan

Jim Nowlan

Jim Nowlan is a retired professor and former Illinois legislator and state agency director. He has worked for three unindicted Illinois governors.