Whether the Iran hostage fiasco, 9/11 or the war in Iraq, Ted Koppel’s coolheaded, slightly detached delivery of bad news soothed viewers in ways that today’s anchors rarely can. Koppel was among the last of the broadcast consensus journalists, his authoritative baritone connoting a sturdy objectivity — a throwback to a time when Americans drew from the same set of facts, the same shared reality.
A few years before the novel coronavirus turned life as we knew it upside down, Koppel penned “Lights Out: A Cyberattack, a Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath,” an eerily prescient warning that foreshadowed the systemic vulnerabilities exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
During the reporting of the book, Koppel visited Wyoming and Utah to get a sense of what he described as the “culture of self-reliance” in the rural West. He was particularly impressed by his visit to Salt Lake City and what he described as an “extraordinary focus on the integration of self-sufficiency and charity.”
In the following excerpt, updated for 2022, Koppel introduces us to those on the front lines of disasters — and to what, even now, must be fixed if Americans are to endure the next one.
It’s 2014. And Martin Knapp is homeland security coordinator for Park County, Wyoming (a position he’ll hold until 2019). On the inside of the door of his office in Cody is a poster with the bold headline “HOMELAND SECURITY” above a photograph of four Native Americans holding rifles. Underneath the photograph is a slogan: “FIGHTING TERRORISM SINCE 1492.”
Knapp has a sense of humor with an edge that probably plays well in the Cowboy State. As he pours us both a cup of coffee, I take photographs of a couple of other slogans on the walls of his office, these starting to crinkle with age: “SOME PEOPLE ARE ALIVE,” said one, “SIMPLY BECAUSE IT’S AGAINST THE LAW TO KILL THEM.” And this one: “POLITICIANS ARE THE ONLY PEOPLE IN THE WORLD WHO CREATE PROBLEMS AND THEN CAMPAIGN AGAINST THEM.”
Knapp is a transplant from Mansfield, Ohio; he can still recall his first day in Wyoming, back in 1971. “I drove up South Park, passed three cars going the other direction. Two of them waved to me. Now, where I come from, if I waved to somebody going down the road, I’m likely to get flipped off, even if I know the person. Here, people are waving and they don’t know me. But that’s the way people are around here.”
At the age of 18 Martin Knapp learned the skills of a horse wrangler while working for room and board. He and a group of more experienced cowboys would drive a herd into Grand Teton National Park, let them loose at night to graze and round them up again before they scattered at first light. He eventually acquired the tracking and hunting skills required to become a guide for a local outfitter. After well over 40 years in Wyoming, Knapp believes he’s almost accepted as a local.
Wyoming, clearly, is not New York or Ohio. “They take care of themselves,” said Knapp, referring to the locals. “They’re out of power? OK, I got my own generator, I got this, I got that. We’ll make do. We lived for hundreds of years without electricity. We can do it again.”
Which is why I’ve come to Wyoming. There is a culture of self-reliance in rural America. People will use their Medicare benefits and cash their Social Security checks in Wyoming as readily as in New York or California, but in principle there is an antipathy to dependence and an inclination to keep government at arm’s length. Perhaps a more affirmative way of saying that is to suggest that people here will try to solve their own problems before turning to any government agency, local, state or federal. Is such a state, I wonder, any better equipped to confront a crisis for which the federal government has no specific plan?
As homeland security coordinator for Park County, Knapp worried about what might happen on his turf, and what to do about it when it did. Knapp considered the prospect of an electric grid going down, but there’s been no guidance on the subject from Homeland Security in Washington.
“In fact,” said Knapp, “that even goes as far down as the state level. When I’ve called or tried to say, ‘Hey, I’m working on something here if this happens. What does the state recommend, or what are you going to do?’ They won’t tell me.”
“Won’t or can’t tell you?”
“Probably a little bit of both. They refuse to fill me in because they don’t want it to get out what we’re going to do — what they’re going to do. I’ll say, ‘I thought we’re on the same team here.’ But that’s, you know, it’s secret squirrel stuff.” Knapp doesn’t seem overly concerned about the lack of information from either state or federal government.
One committed and well-informed person can provide genuinely valuable information. In a disaster, getting substantive help seems to depend more on the luck of the draw, though, than on organization. Research assistant Rachel Baye tried a similar approach to solicit information from the Department of Homeland Security:
UNKNOWN: “The Department of Homeland Security switchboard. How may I direct your call?”
RACHEL: “Hi, I was wondering if I could get some information about emergency preparedness?”
UNKNOWN: “Yeah, one moment.”
RECORDING: “You have reached the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Please hold for the next available agent.”
UNKNOWN: “FEMA operator.”
RACHEL: “Hi, I was looking for some information on emergency preparedness.”
UNKNOWN: “OK. Hold on for just a moment.”
RACHEL: “Thank you.” (Music for 20 seconds, then a recorded message) “... the following options. If you’re a member of the media and have an inquiry, press one. For general public affairs questions, please press two. If you’re with a state, local, or tribal government and would like to speak to someone in inter-governmental affairs, press three. To speak with someone in community relations, press four. For our office of international affairs, press five. If you’d like to speak with someone in our office of legislative affairs, press six. If you’ve been affected by a disaster and would like to register for assistance, or if you’ve already registered and have questions or would like to check on the status of your application, please hang up now and call 1-800-621-FEMA. That’s 1-800-621-FEMA. To speak with an operator, press 0 or simply stay on the line. Once again, thank you for calling FEMA’s office of external affairs.”
Rachel pressed four, hoping to speak with someone in community relations and got this recorded message: “Public 44 44 is not available. Record your message after the tone. When you’ve finished. ...” At this point, Rachel hung up. The thought struck me that anyone who has been “affected by a disaster and would like to register for assistance” may not make it through the first six prompts of that phone message.
The greater issue, though, is a lack of consistency. The search for guidance on disaster relief, when there is no crisis underway, no stress involved, cannot be dependent on the design of a more efficient phone tree. It cannot rely on the individual enthusiasm of a staffer or volunteer operator at the Red Cross or be undermined by the bored indifference of a government worker at the Department of Homeland Security. There is no guidance on guidance.
If not the Red Cross, Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Department of Homeland Security, where should the interested citizen turn? What is available online can be pathetically inadequate, boiling down to the customary recommendation for two to three days’ worth of food and water, warm clothing, a functioning battery-powered radio and extra batteries. Disaster preparation recommendations usually include a predetermined plan for where and how the family will meet. Beyond that, citizens are largely adrift, left to find their own solutions.
A few of them have. A lot of others are still searching.
For the most part, public reaction to the possibility of a cyberattack had not even risen to the level of apathy. Apathy suggests the awareness of a problem and the decision not to worry about it. We’re not there yet. To the degree that government and its disaster relief operations focus our attention at all, they direct it toward the familiar: natural disasters common to our region, or variations on terrorist attacks that have already occurred. Perhaps by definition, preparation for the unknown requires a generic approach.
There is, in any event, a growing movement around the country based on the assumption that neither government agencies nor private relief organizations can be relied upon in the event of any major disaster. A generation or two ago, they might have been called survivalists, but there was an extreme right-wing aura attached to that term, conjuring images of bunkers built to sustain life against aerial bombardment.
While such groups continue to exist, they have been modified and largely displaced by a much larger group for whom ideology is less relevant. “Preppers,” perhaps most easily described as “those who prepare,” can be found across the political spectrum. They are not necessarily prophets of doom, simply those who want to be ready for the worst. As such, they are accustomed to a mea- sure of mockery; they are, after all, only rarely proved right. Dealing with daily life is complicated enough without trying to anticipate and prepare for the hypothetical, no matter how extreme the catastrophe, no matter how unimpeachable the evidence.
In that sense, at least, today’s preppers are direct descendants of one of the Old Testament’s most famous prophets. Indeed, it is not unusual for preppers to cite his example. It may be unfashionable to link catastrophic disaster to God’s judgment, but how interesting it is that Genesis, that bare-bones account of the very earliest days of existence, has no sooner laid the foundation for our journey into history than it diverts into an account of total annihilation. If nothing else, the story of Noah provides evidence that mankind has always been troubled by an undercurrent of worry that what is at present cannot last. Noah is an everlasting reproach to the cynics who mock the ark builders.
Our notions of time may differ from biblical accounts, but Genesis tells us that with only seven days notice of a flood that would cover the earth to the peaks of its highest mountains, Noah built an ark. Genesis is silent on the matter of where Noah acquired the tools, the wood and the vast quantities of tar with which he sealed the interior and exterior of his enormous ship. Where details are provided, they stagger the imagination.
Noah was 600 years old when God alerted him to the impending cataclysm (although this was, relatively speaking, the prime of life; his grandfather Methuselah died at the age of 969). The ark was to be 300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide and 30 cubits high — 440 feet from bow to stern (significantly longer than a football field), more than 70 feet wide and well over 40 feet high. Even taking into account that he had three strapping sons to help him, construction would have been challenging. It was designed to accommodate not only Noah and his family but a virtually inconceivable menagerie of creatures great and small. Not, as my childhood memory misinformed me, merely two of each, but two each of the ritually unclean and seven pairs of all ritually clean creatures. (Those spares, some commentaries on the Old Testament suggest, were intended for the ritual sacrifices that Noah would perform in gratitude for God’s mercy once the waters receded.)
We are free to speculate on whether some of those spare, ritually clean animals might not have ended up as survival rations. After all, more than a year elapsed between the time the rains began and the day the floods had receded enough for disembarkation, and the Old Testament provides no details on how Noah accomplished the extraordinary task of provisioning his ship for that much time. Rashi, the 11th-century French rabbi, suggests that the task of building and provisioning the ark actually took 120 years — sufficient time for mankind to mend its wicked ways. That resolves some practical issues while raising others best left to biblical scholars.
I offer the story of Noah simply as evidence that mankind has been struggling with the prospect of impending disaster since the beginning of recorded time and that genuine preparedness is a considerable, perhaps even existential, challenge.
But preppers of every era have been outnumbered by the skeptics who tend to view their activities with a combination of fascination and amusement. Unless and until we are actually confronted by disaster, we have a tendency to view it primarily as remote, more applicable to others than to ourselves. Disaster viewed from an appropriate distance can even become entertainment.
Wrapped in the right packaging, doomsday scenarios remain a well-established genre within popular culture: “Blade Runner,” “The Hunger Games,” “Mad Max.” We have a deep-seated fascination with our own annihilation, as long as these postapocalyptic nightmares come with a predetermined running time — a limited experience in a darkened theater from which we can emerge, pulse racing, energized and relieved to be back in a familiar setting.
The fact remains, however, that absent any guidance from Congress or the executive branch of government, beyond broad recommendations for weathering the first 72 hours or so, individual Americans have been left to select their own approaches to the prospect of a lengthy, widespread disaster. Among those who have taken up the challenge, some are serious and well organized and know what they’re doing. Most don’t.
Even the most elaborate framework for disaster survival requires a solid foundation. For members of the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, this means starting with families, who are encouraged to prepare, over time, for unspecified emergencies. They are urged to gradually set aside enough food, water, clothing and money to sustain themselves for three to 12 months.
Ezra Taft Benson, who served the Eisenhower administration as secretary of agriculture before becoming the church’s 13th president, framed the issue in thoroughly pragmatic terms. “Have you ever paused to realize what would happen to your community or nation,” he asked in 1980, “if transportation were paralyzed or if we had a war or depression? How would you and your neighbors obtain food? How long would the corner grocery store — or supermarket — sustain the needs of the community?” He recommended storing at least a year’s worth of supplies.
In Salt Lake City I met the Turleys. If Norman Rockwell had chosen to paint the all-American Latter-day Saint family, he could very easily have ended up with the Turleys. Kate and Trey Turley are wholesomely good-looking, and there is an impish quality about their three boys. Their pantry, which Kate estimated contains enough stored food to feed the family for about six months, looks well organized but less overwhelming than I had imagined a six-month supply would be. (Big water containers!) That’s where Kate picked out the ingredients for our dinner that evening: chicken with pasta, frozen bread crisped in the oven, salad and nonalcoholic apple cider.
We sat down after dinner to talk about a few of the aspects of their lives that identify them as members of the Church of Jesus Christ. Most of what they described would not seem unfamiliar in a conservative Christian, Jewish or Muslim home. Self-discipline and charity are high on the agenda.
Like many observant religious groups, practicing Latter-day Saints follow top-down instruction to maintain a set social structure, and almost all religions stress charitable giving. What distinguishes the Latter-day Saints is their extraordinary focus on the integration of self-sufficiency and charity. That carefully layered structure is what gives the Church of Jesus Christ its impact and efficiency.
In case the electricity is out and the normal phone system is no longer functional, satellite phones have been pre-positioned with regional leaders and a network of ham radio operators has been set up. If cars aren’t working or if gasoline is scarce, local bishops have plans to send messengers by bicycle or foot. A bishop knows who in his community is vulnerable and where he can find those with the particular skill sets to assist — those who can, for example, provide medical assistance or help with rudimentary repairs.
According to Steven Peterson, then managing director of the church’s welfare services, a bishop’s recognized authority enables him to organize the community at the local level. Peterson expressed complete confidence in this “chain of authority,” declaring that “in the situation where communications are largely eliminated and it’s not possible to connect with other leaders, we firmly believe that the individual members who have storage and food and preparation in their homes, led by local bishops and stake presidents, would immediately join together and figure out how they could best care for each other.”
The finely calibrated, professional operation this national network represents can, and has on occasion, outstripped Washington’s own disaster response machine. In a 2007 article for Mother Jones, Stephanie Mencimer recounted the Church of Jesus Christ’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It was, she wrote, “a performance that put the federal government to shame.” The New Orleans branch of the Church of Jesus Christ had evacuated all but seven of its approximately 2,500 congregants before the storm even hit, largely because the church had created an automated telephone emergency warning system that alerted all its members, instructing them to get out of town and telling them where to go.
“While FEMA was floundering,” Mencimer wrote, “the church dispatched 10 trucks full of tents, sleeping bags, tarps to cover wrecked roofs, bottled water, and 5-gallon drums of gas from its warehouses to New Orleans and other hard-hit areas. The supplies were distributed in an orderly fashion to people who desperately needed them.”
If Congress was convinced that at some point the government might need to provide emergency food supplies to, say, 30 million people for a year, it could, for $2,000 a head, provide the basics to keep them alive. Could this be part of a solution?
The $60 billion cost is hardly prohibitive when you consider how many lives would be at stake. It would probably take the industry years to accumulate the necessary raw materials, but in theory, at least, it seems a viable option. What can be projected with some confidence is that any crisis that knocked out electricity for more than a couple of weeks over a multistate area would exhaust emergency food supplies in a matter of days.
There are individuals whose preparedness planning will get them through the initial days and even weeks when food runs out. FEMA, the National Guard and branches of the federal government are focused on finding a way to keep water flowing — enough, at least, to keep people alive and to dispose of their waste — but maintaining an adequate flow of food into the cities and keeping the very young, the elderly and the infirm alive will depend in some measure on the season. Winter, when there is no safe source of heat, would take a particularly heavy toll. In an environment of crowded, hungry, freezing people, each passing day would presumably elevate the potential for violence. It requires a degree of advance planning well beyond whatever exists to deal with the consequences of a natural disaster.
We are inclined, as Tom Ridge, former homeland security secretary, once observed, to be a reactive society. We apply unimaginable amounts of money toward dealing with the aftermath of crises.
The most conservative estimates put the financial cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq at around $2 trillion. The Transportation Security Administration, which came into being as a direct consequence of the 9/11 terror attacks, employs 65,000 people, with an annual budget in excess of $8 billion. Between 2001 and 2015, TSA was funded to the tune of somewhere between $90 billion and $100 billion of protection we didn’t know we needed before to 9/11. Nor, it seems, has the money been particularly well spent. In early June 2015, the Department of Homeland Security revealed that its teams of undercover investigators were able to smuggle dummy explosives and weapons through TSA checkpoints at airports around the country in 95% of cases.
We tend to come up with funding after disaster strikes.
This story was excerpted from the book, “Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath,” by Ted Koppel. Copyright 2015 by Edward J. Koppel. Published by Crown, an imprint of Random House, a division of Random House, LLC. All rights reserved.