Cliff May

Had the earthquake that hit Haiti shaken Florida instead, the death toll would not have been so tragically high - over 150,000 at last count. In Haiti, as in other impoverished countries, buildings are often shoddily constructed, infrastructure is weak, and governance is incompetent. The primary response to disaster: wait for help from abroad.

It's a well established rule: Rich nations endure natural disasters better than poor nations. But there may be an exception. Stay with me for a moment and you'll see what I mean.

In recent years, Americans have become dependent not just on electricity but on computers, micro-chips and satellites. The infrastructure that supports all this has become increasingly sophisticated - but not more resilient. On the contrary, as this infrastructure has become more complex, it also has become more fragile and therefore more vulnerable -- an Achilles' heel.

That is why, in 2001, the U.S. government established a commission to "assess the threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) attack." Such an attack would involve the detonation of a nuclear warhead at high altitude over the American mainland, producing a shockwave powerful enough to knock out electrical power, electronics, communications, transportation, refrigeration, water-pumping stations, sewage systems and much more. Think of a blackout, but one of indefinite duration -- because we have no plan for recovery and could expect little or no help from abroad.

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Historian William R. Forstchen researched what America would be like in the aftermath of an EMP attack for his novel, "One Second After." I don't think I'm spoiling the experience for prospective readers by telling you that Forstchen is convinced the result would be millions of deaths from starvation and disease, a catastrophe from which America would never fully recover.

The EMP commission also reported that Iran - which is feverishly working to acquire nuclear weapons - has conducted tests in which it launched missiles and exploded warheads at high altitudes. And the CIA has translated Iranian military journals in which EMP attacks against the U.S. are explicitly discussed.

Might Iran's rulers orchestrate such an attack if and when they acquire a nuclear capability? That is a heated debate among defense experts. But what is almost never discussed is the threat of a naturally occurring EMP event.

Cliff May

Clifford D. May is the President of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.