Failure of the electrical grid can lead to far more than just inconvenience and a loss of the lights. History has proven that loss of electricity and the amenities it provides can lead to civil unrest, including riots.
Attacks on the infrastructure that provides our homes and businesses with electricity are far more common and sometimes more effective than we might imagine. News articles indicate that the grid is under constant siege from attackers, ranging from sophisticated cybercriminals to disgruntled employees. Even though the motives of these saboteurs vary widely, their purpose is a simple one: to wreak havoc by shutting off the electricity.
Such attacks can occur in conjunction with civil unrest or they might be carried out with the intention of triggering civil unrest. One reason why the saboteurs go after the grid is that it is highly vulnerable to attack. Such assaults are likely to cause a major electrical outage in the future because the grid is under constant attack.
The United States power grid suffers some sort of attack every four days, a March 2015 investigation by reporters from USA Today and 10 other Gannett media outlets revealed. The attacks occur both in cyberspace and in the real world, with a major attempt to breach computer security at an electrical facility occurring about once a week.
There were more than 300 physical attacks on electrical infrastructure between 2011 and 2015, Gannett discovered. Authorities have not been able to identify suspects or make arrests in most of those attacks.
‘We Are Without God Now’ — The 1977 New York Blackout
The worst example of civil unrest caused by a power outage was the New York City Blackout of 1977. That grid failure led to widespread looting, rioting and arson. A series of lightning strikes on the evening of July 13, 1977, blew out circuit breakers, which caused power lines to overload with electricity and blow out the system.
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The loss of power led to chaos and widespread looting in parts of the city. More than 3,700 people were arrested, 1,600-plus stores looted, and 550 police officers injured.
“The looters were looting other looters, and the fists and the knives were coming out,” neurologist Carl St. Martin recalled in an interview with The New York Times. St. Martin witnessed the violence first-hand as a medical student at Wyckoff Heights Hospital in Brooklyn.
Some observers used apocalyptical language to describe the situation.
“We are without God now,” Father Gabriel Santacruz, a Catholic Priest at St. Barbara’s Church in Bushwick, Brooklyn, told his congregation after the violence had ended.
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Many observers blamed the violence during the 1977 New York blackout on economic conditions. The worst looting occurred in poorer neighborhoods where people were desperate and angry.
It’s Not Just NYC
In June 2014, angry mobs stormed several electrical substations in Northern India after a heatwave caused blackouts and power cuts, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reported. In one incident, a mob set an electrical substation in the city of Gonda on fire. In Lucknow, a crowd ransacked power company offices and took employees hostage.
Temperatures as high as 117 degrees caused the grid to fail, the CBC reported. Civil unrest was made worse by popular anger at utilities, which started rationing utilities as high temperatures created a high demand for electricity.
Power outages can also create riots at colleges. On April 6, 2010, a blackout caused a melee at the University of Washington’s fraternity row in Seattle, United Press reported. A mob blocked streets, set couches on fire and threw bottles and bear cans at police.
A similar incident occurred at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, on September 16, 2008. Around 3,000 students poured into the streets and began throwing objects at police after school officials decided to keep classes going during a power outage. Nearly 70 police officers from 10 different departments had to be called in.
There are several ways to stay safe from blackout-induced civil unrest:
- Move. Living in a home that is as far away from the city center and business areas is the best way to keep your family safe. Moving out to the country. or at least the edge of the city, is a good first move.
- Keep as low a profile as possible. Hunker down and keep safe until order is restored. One reason for this is that it will usually take several days for the regular military or the National Guard to mobilize and deploy to a trouble spot. Another delay is that troops cannot usually be deployed to an area until state or local authorities request their presence.
- Stay home and off the streets. Do not drive or take long walks or bicycle rides unless absolutely necessary. You should also stay off public transportation systems, such as subways or light rail, because they run on electricity and often shut down during power outages. Stay off of major highways and freeways as well, because they become gridlocked with traffic in emergencies.
- Examine maps of your area closely and find alternative routes to use during an emergency. Try to avoid major streets and highways.
- Keep all of your valuables such as electronics, jewelry, gold, coins, silver, cash, guns etc., out of sight. If you have a safe, make sure it is hidden. Moving your vehicles to a location where they cannot be seen from the road or street is also a good idea.
- Keep an emergency source of electricity, such as a solar generator, on hand. This can help you enjoy a modern lifestyle while your neighbors are blacked out.
- Stockpile food, medicine and other supplies, and have a bug-out plan.
Civil unrest and power outages are like any other emergencies. You and your family can get through them safely and securely with a little preparation, awareness, knowledge and common sense.
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