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Podcast: Preparing for the Unthinkable: Pandemics and Electromagnetic Pulse

Podcast featuring Glynn Cosker, Edge and
Dr. Chris Reynolds, Dean, Vice President of Academic Outreach and Program Development, American Military University

How well prepared is the U.S. to face any disaster? In the second part of this series, Glynn Cosker talks to AMU Dean Dr. Chris Reynolds about preparing for any disaster scenario, even ones that once seemed unlikely. Whereas most people once thought they would never experience a pandemic, the nation continues to respond to the spread of COVID-19. Dr. Reynolds also discusses preparing for an electromagnetic pulse, also known as an EMP, which would wipe out all electronic connections including the electric power grid, communication infrastructure, vehicles, and much more.

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Read the Transcript:

Glynn Cosker: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I’m Glynn Cosker, your host. Joining me today is Dr. Chris Reynolds, AMU’s Dean and Vice President of Academic Outreach and Program Development. He is a certified emergency manager through IAEM.

His career in emergency and disaster management spans more than three decades and includes some on-the-ground responses to the Oklahoma City bombing, various major hurricanes over the years, including Hurricane Andrew and Hurricane Katrina, and various earthquake responses and recovery operations, including the Haitian earthquake in 2010. Dr. Reynolds, Did I miss anything?

Dr. Chris Reynolds: No, Glynn. I think you pretty much covered it all.

Glynn Cosker: Today, we’re going to discuss the recent past, the present, and the future as we navigate through this bloody awful year that we’ve had so far to an ongoing disaster, a worldwide disaster, which of course is the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.

We’re just about six months or so into COVID in the US. Of course, there’s been a lot of discussion among the talking heads on how the US has handled the coronavirus. What is your take on it all? I mean, is it something that can actually be looked at from the highest level of government?

I mean, there’s a lot of people out there saying President Trump hasn’t done enough. Well, I mean, close to what, 300 million or something people, 50 states or 50 different governors, can it be tackled at that highest level or is it more boots on the ground for you?

Dr. Chris Reynolds: Well, yeah, that’s a really good question. First, I think we all have to come to terms with the realization that COVID-19 has been politicized on both the left and the right. It’s unfortunate that much of that political influence has influenced and has swayed what the population and the public think about COVID-19.

I think the reality of COVID-19 is that there’s no doubt that it’s a pandemic, that there’s no doubt that it has created fatalities worldwide. It has certainly within the United States as well. That it requires people being proactive and using due diligence and care when being in the public.

I think that we are on the downside, I think that the science, the Centers for Disease Control, as well as the national health. Institute of Health has also said that the infections are on the downside. They were/are expecting a second wave, perhaps, of infections.

I think that in the six months that we’ve been impacted by COVID-19, that the world’s health community has come together and have developed significant treatments to help solve or rather cure or mitigate the symptoms of COVID-19. I think that the population is likely better able to cope with it than they were, say, back in March when it first hit.

I think that in terms of alerting the public, I think that that was done appropriately and accurately. I think that the resources were certainly put into play to deal with and mitigate it. I think, again, unfortunately, it’s been politicized.

I think that the famous moniker of, “Listen to the science,” should be followed. I think, the science to drive what we’re doing. I think that we have to as a country come together and realize that life before COVID-19 is different than life is now. This may very well be what it is into the future.

Glynn Cosker: I agree 100%, with everything you just said. In particular, it is life changing, just the same way 9/11 changed our lives as far as the way we travel around the world. Of course, in so many other ways, it changed everybody’s lives.

This is going to be a case of a pre-COVID and a post-COVID world as well. I agree with you, the science is there. I’m personally outraged about the way the whole thing has been politicized. I mean, as you know, Chris, I’m from the UK, from across the pond. I get regular updates, obviously, because my sister and my mother are still living over there. My mother’s in the high-risk category, so to speak. I just see how the population reacts to this sort of thing in the UK compared to how the population reacted to it over here.

I mean, there might be a little bit of politicizing it in other countries, but not much. I mean, they’re pretty much fall into line and do what they’re told and listen to the scientists and listen to the leaders. It is a real shame that that kind of thing didn’t happen over here. There are people on one side or both sides of an argument that’s related to a disease that has killed more than 200,000 people. It was an opportunity for the country to get together. It’s sad to me that 2020, it’s really just divided the country even more.

All we seem to hear about is President Trump did this, which was bad. And then someone else did this, which was terrible as well. It seems like we’ve lost focusing on the people who are suffering and more on the politics. Would you agree?

Dr. Chris Reynolds: I completely agree. Let me also add on to that, I know that you’re from the UK. My son-in-law, the gentleman he’s married to my eldest daughter is from Whitby, England, up in Yorkshire, in northern England. He has parents that are in their 80s that are of course extremely susceptible to COVID. Cautions that they’ve taken over there, particularly up in the Whitby area, up in Yorkshire and in the northern part of England, much like it has been in London and other metro areas, is they’re paying attention. They’re following the rules. It is sad that we in this country don’t realize that those rules really need to be followed.

I mean, we all have civil liberties that we want to observe, but one has to realize that when it comes to a public health crisis, civil liberties can sometimes be stopped or can be ceased. We don’t want to see that occur. That’s why we want to see our fellow citizens here do what’s appropriate: stay out of large gatherings without masks, follow what the CDC guidelines are. Really that’s only the way they’re going to remain safe and keep their family safe. No one wants to bring COVID-19 home to an elderly family member. Nobody wants to go through that.

Glynn Cosker: That’s the thing that I get a little bit upset with when I see people not following the guidelines. I live in a college town. So, I’ve got lots of 18-to 22-year-olds walking around. In my town, the governor of New Hampshire and the town level stated recently that mandatory masks were to be used no matter where you are, if you’re out in public. So, walking down the street, you’re supposed to wear one.

The point that you just brought up is what I’m getting at here is that just because you might think you’re impervious at 18 years old, but you definitely could be carrying active virus. Of course, Durham where I live, the demographics are you’re either 18 to 22, because there’s 10,000 college students, or you’re 65 and older, because there’s a lot of older people that retire to this area of New Hampshire. And then you got people like me in the middle, but mostly it’s younger people and older people in this town.

Of course, the younger people are walking around with no masks and coughing and sneezing and everything else. I just want to stop them and say, “Look, look at this person over here. She’s probably what, 70 something? I mean, do you understand that this person over here could die because you’re just strolling around town?” Of course, that brings up a whole different topic of discussion, but it’s just something that could have prevented a lot of deaths, in my opinion, if people were to follow what the CDC said and all those guidelines, right?

Dr. Chris Reynolds: Yes, without a doubt, without a doubt. People just have to take greater responsibility. Taking care of your family and yourself, it begins with that, which also extends to others. Putting people at risk is never ever a good choice, ever.

Glynn Cosker: No, I agree. Of course, this is really just a primer for something terrible that might happen in the future, Chris. Because as bad as COVID-19 has been, there are viruses that are out there waiting to happen that are 10 times more fatal, like an Ebola hemorrhagic fever type of virus.

What would happen if something like that hit the US? I mean, the protocols that we’ve seen for COVID, I imagine we’ll see those protocols on steroids, right?

Dr. Chris Reynolds: Well, I think that first, we should all realize that in 2014, we actually had Ebola in the United States that some health practitioners brought back with them after helping and assisting at medical centers in Africa where they had the horrific Ebola outbreak. They were course all put in isolates and put in isolation. Fortunately, I believe they all were cured of Ebola. So, we’ve already really had an Ebola experience here.

In terms of preparedness and readiness, health and human services, of course, will oversee that. The Surgeon General of the United States would be essentially the incident commander and the executive policy group with the president, federally. State and locally, your health departments as well as your emergency management departments would be dealing with how to respond to and how to mitigate, how to take care of.

Also, on the federal side, you’d have FEMA that would be most involved in this. Through health and human services, disaster and medical response teams, their DMAT teams would come in and assist. From the military, you would have USAMRAA, the United States Army’s medical incident response force, as well as the US Marine Corps, Chemical Biological Incident Response Force or CBIRF. They would bring in federal help also.

Of course, it would involve the Air Force in terms of airlift, but the Air Force could also activate the Civilian Reserve Air Fleet or CRAF, it’s called, that has the ability of turning airliners essentially into flying hospitals or into flying ambulances to move patients to facilities that maybe are overwhelmed, because so many folks are just overwhelming their capability. Other healthcare facilities have to step in and help.

So, I think you would see a really true joint operation that would work to mitigate or to reverse, God forbid we had a hemorrhagic fever pandemic outbreak in the United States.

Glynn Cosker: One thing that you and I have discussed in the past, which I’ll be honest, it did scare the bejesus out of me a little bit is the electromagnetic pulse scenario. Now, not all of our audience will know what an electromagnetic pulse or an EMP is. So, there are natural versions of these things, and then, of course, manmade things. So, Chris, why don’t you tell our audience a little bit about EMPs and what they’re capable of?

Dr. Chris Reynolds: Well, simply, an EMP is just a rush of energy or a large magnetic field that can come in and create problems with electronics. Essentially, it’s a short surge of electromagnetic energy. It’s short duration, essentially means that it will spread over a range of frequencies. So, there are frequencies within the spectrum that are visible, that one can listen to, one can’t see their infrared spectrum.

But what an EMP does or electromagnetic pulses is it fires this short-term large mass energy. It causes a disruption. It can stop essentially anything that’s electronic, electronic ignition in your car, your telephone, your homes, the electrical grid, the banking grid. An EMP pulse could create mass devastation across the country, or if not, just across the world.

How one prepares for that? Well, there are certain things that organizations or even the federal government has, where they harden their electronics behind lead or behind other materials that will protect it from an EMP pulse. But most of us don’t have those luxuries.

A scenario could be you’re driving down the highway and EMP is released. Because it’s been released, the electronics on your car shut off. Your car stops right there. You lose everything, the capability of driving the car. Of course, if you’ve got electric vehicles, even worse for you. EMPs can come from solar burst from the sun and EMP wave can hit.

A coronal mass ejection, in fact, there are cases where that has occurred. It’s wiped out satellites, GPS satellites. It’s wiped out some communication satellites. The sun observatory that is operated by the federal government keeps an eye on those sunspots to make sure there’s ample warning time for a coronal mass ejection.

But even if you’re warned, what does one do? Really, there’s not much of a defense against it. In the worst-case scenario, you can see aircraft falling from the sky. You could see all kinds of horrific things from an EMP. As a weapon, that’s something else we have to be concerned about. We concern ourselves, “Do terrorists have access to EMP devices?”

Glynn Cosker: When we’re talking about manmade EMPs that could come in the form of a terror attack from North Korea, which has said they have the capability of doing such a thing. I guess the way it would work, Chris, and correct me if I’m wrong is that there would be some sort of high altitude major electromagnetic pulse perhaps from a nuclear device exploding, but not near the surface of the US but above it.

As you say, you mentioned how the satellites can go down. Well, they did happen in the ’80s, I think, in Canada, when such a thing did happen. Yeah, the satellites went down, there was a little bit of stoppage of certain things.

But nowadays, look how much we rely on the internet and email and cars, of course, and GPS and satellites that control everything from banking to hospitals. It’s basically everything. It would be like reverting to 1820 or something, where there was nothing, right?

So, tell us more about what would happen if, for instance, North Korea or a rogue actor got ahold of something that could cause this sort of event to happen? I mean, surely there are some proactive measures in place right now to prevent such a thing.

Dr. Chris Reynolds: Yeah, there are. I mean, the scenario you brought up about high altitude nuclear detonation, I mean, that is the typical manmade-type of an EMP that would occur. What happens, again, realizing that a nuclear weapon no matter where it’s exploded certainly is a problem, but a nuclear weapon that would be air detonated, say, over an East Coast city wouldn’t necessarily have a direct impact on a West Coast city. There would still be some communications.

But the strategic nature of those type of weapons is to make the detonation, where it’s over maybe the New York Stock Exchange or it’s over one of the big tracking and networking cell phone carriers around the country, that would have a great impact nationwide.

One thing that EMP does is that it ejects the massive amounts of gamma rays. Of course, the gamma rays alone that goes through you and can kill you and cause cellular damage. So, there’s a secondary effect to an EMP burst.

In terms of what it would do across the country, I mean, we are also used to our handheld devices, instant news, instant everything, convenience of a refrigerator, getting in our car and going someplace, turning the television or the radio on. If we lost all that, certainly, it would have an impact societally.

In terms of defense, yes, the United States I think is pretty well defended through NORAD, of the North American Aerospace Defense Command to deal with the EMP threats from hostile nations. That still is not something we want to see ever occur.

Glynn Cosker: No, we don’t. Of course, I don’t want to spook out our audience too much, but the natural form that we mentioned earlier, the solar flares, the coronal mass ejections, that can happen. There was a huge one that occurred in the 1850s called the Carrington Event. At the time, the only sort of electrical communications that the world had was telegraph. It took that out. If something of that magnitude was to come from the sun now, it would be devastating.

But going back to a manmade EMP or terror attack, of course, the goal of the terrorists then would be not to destroy people all at once as they would in a horrible bombing attack or something of that nature or obviously 9/11, of course, that type of terror attack.

It would be we’d all just make everybody kill each other in effect, because I can’t imagine the mass hysteria and breakdown of society that would happen if all the cars stopped working, all the stores stopped, all the restaurants closed. The internet was down forever. Telephones were down forever. I mean, am I right in saying that that’s the danger? The danger is societal breakdown, right?

Dr. Chris Reynolds: I think you’re absolutely right. You can look at popular culture and see the impact, whether it’s the zombie attack or the TV series that have been on for years that’s very popular that shows the world scenarios. I think that that sticks in people’s minds.

Coronal mass ejection to the extent like you mentioned about the 1800s ejection that occurred that burned up all telegraphs across the world, they were just in their infancy back then as well. That type of an event now would have worldwide implications.

I mean, we have both the aurora borealis and the aurora australis, the Northern and Southern lights, which shows essentially the sun’s activity and its impact of electromagnetic waves against our electric gravity field and our own electromagnetic activity of our planet.

A coronal mass ejection that came in through the poles could certainly impact worldwide without any question. The impact on society? Devastating. Yes, I think as a world, I think that you would see, I think rioting is the right word, but I think you would see people trying to fend for themselves.

Glynn Cosker: Definitely would. Thankfully, though, as we mentioned earlier, there are some proactive measures. I think that mostly on a state level though a lot of states in the US are preparing the national grid system for such an event. That’s the one thing that we haven’t mentioned, of course, the power grid would go down. It would go down everywhere.

It wouldn’t be just like a blackout or a power cut or whatever. It would just be down for weeks or months even. Some jurisdictions are taking measures to prepare for such a thing, but some aren’t. I suppose that’s the worrying part.

Dr. Chris Reynolds: Well, the shielding is really important. Some of the things that can be done, it’s already been done to some degree with some contracts that are written for the federal government to ensure that there’s adequate shielding. You don’t prevent an EMP from destroying a device or destroying a network. As you said, our nation’s power grid is a patchwork of power lines and substations going back almost 100 years.

Glynn Cosker: Absolutely. Well, again, let’s hope. This is a depressing podcast so far, but at the same time, it’s very important to get these facts out there. Because, as you said earlier, one of the pillars of emergency management, of course, is preparedness. These are bad things that we should all be prepared for. I mean, we shouldn’t be reacting to these things. We should be prepared for them.

We’re going to be talking about a post-COVID world, but hopefully, we can learn a lot from the present-COVID world. So, that the post-COVID world is better, and we’re prepared. It won’t be a disastrous time period in history.

It’ll be something that “Hey, we’ve learned from this disaster, this catastrophe. We are making ourselves and our communities better prepared for such things to happen in the future.” Would you agree?

Dr. Chris Reynolds: Oh, completely. Absolutely, completely. Glynn, I think that you encapsulated that very well. It is going to be definitely a post-COVID-19 world once we are through this pandemic, once we get the vaccinations developed and we get the population vaccinated.

Glynn Cosker: Well, to be honest with you, I think all of these signs that are on the floor wherever you go, which says, “Keep six feet apart,” and “Wash your hands,” and having hand sanitizer everywhere and covering your cough and all of these things, hopefully, they’ll just be permanent, because why wouldn’t they be?

If anything, it would prevent the flu every flu season and it would prevent people getting sick. Forget about COVID-19 and the coronavirus, these are just basic steps. So, I hope that all of these signs that are on the floor of stores and buildings are permanent. Why wouldn’t they be?

I’m sure that would be a hard thing for people to follow in the future, but at least, it could be something that is optional. Hopefully, most people would take that option to be diligent and do the social distancing even when there is no pandemic, because it can prevent—there are usually an average of 40,000 flu deaths every flu season—by employing the same social distancing and protocols that we’re doing right now in the future, maybe that flu number could be 10,000 instead of 40,000.

Dr. Chris Reynolds: Sure, it could. Look back on our childhoods, I should say, in the United States and I remember back in the early ’60s, duck and cover drills in the elementary school, for nuclear attack. You ask a child today or a young adult today, “What is duck and cover mean?” They have no clue. They have no context.

COVID-19 is a game changer. If you ask children 20 years from now, “What’s COVID-19? What is social distancing?” They’re going to be able to tell you instantly what it was, because their parents or their grandparents have lived through it. Like I said, this is life changing.

Glynn Cosker: It is. Okay, Chris, I think we have scared our audience sufficiently. Well, I’m being too light with this, but it’s been a very interesting discussion that we’ve had here today.

Dr. Christopher Reynolds was my guest. Chris, I want to thank you for all of your expert advice that you have given our audience today. I hope that we can get you on a future podcast. Perhaps we can talk about a few more less horrific things. Maybe we could get on to a different type of topic, but for now, I’d like to thank you very much for being my guest today.

Dr. Chris Reynolds: Thank you so much, Glynn. I appreciate the opportunity. I look forward to working and chatting with you going forward.

Glynn Cosker: Thank you for joining us today. I’m Glynn Cosker. Join us again on a future episode. Thank you.

Glynn Cosker is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. In addition to his background in journalism, corporate writing, web and content development, Glynn served as Vice Consul in the Consular Section of the British Embassy located in Washington, D.C. Glynn is located in New England.

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