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Lessons we can learn from NatGeo’s “American Blackout”

National Geographic Channel
One city after another goes dark as a cascading power failure spreads across America. Gas stops pumping. Water stops running. ATMS don’t work. Stores run out of food and hospital generators run out of fuel. Families are separated. Law and order breaks down as looters raid stores and homes. One man kills another for a can of peaches.
That’s the picture painted by NationalGeographic Channel’s American Blackout, a two hour film televised last Sunday which imagines a 10-day national power failure in the United States caused by a cyber-attack. Combining actual footage from past disasters as well as fictional “recordings” from cell phones and video cameras, American Blackout explores what it might be like to survive until the lights come back on.

Throughout the film, factoids appear on the screen indicating just how dependent we are on power for everything from cell phones and television to distribution and storage of food, water and fuel. And as services break down, violence escalates.

It’s not a pretty sight--inviting references to Lord of the Flies, a novel New York Times reporter Matthew Wald used to describe the film.

Wald moderated a panel—which included former leaders from the CIA, NSA, Homeland Security as well representatives from the power industry, medical emergency management and the Red Cross—after a screening of Amercian Blackout last week at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. I attended the screening with my husband, an expert in cyber-security who served as a consultant on the film.

According to experts like my husband, cyber-attacks are occurring on sections of the grid all the time. Last summer, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that a nationwide cyber-attack on the power grid isn’t a matter of “if” but “when.”

But will it be as bad as American Blackout portrays?

American Blackout is a dramatization that, quite frankly, capitalizes on reactions of fear that lead to violence. But, sadly, it’s not without precedence. Scenes like these have played out on the news for decades; I still remember the helplessness and horror I felt watching the aftermath of Hurricane Katrinia. While I am encouraged by the calm following the frustrating recovery on the East Coast after Hurricane Sandy, I can respect that the challenges are much greater in responding to a disaster that cuts off services to the entire nation rather than a regional area.
 American Blackout is a work of fiction, but it invites us to consider real world possibilities. One of the first questions that comes to mind is, how can we prevent events like the ones played out in the film?

Building resiliency and community
The panelists at the National Geographic screening started off doing just that. They discussed steps being taken by the government and utilities to head off these attacks, but I found most interesting their discussion of the need for national and community “resiliency.”

Disseminating information and managing expectations are key elements, they said.

“If you don’t have an informed population, you don’t have a stable populations,” says former Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Jane Holl Lute. “People will take things into their own hands. “ Lute also says that preparation is key. People should be prepared to cope with the first 72 hours of a crisis and not add oneself “to the list of victims.”

Richard Reed, senior vice president of Disaster Cycle Services at the Red Cross, explained that resiliency was “more than the ability to prepare for something”—we must also be ready to respond and recover. The individual, community and nation all share responsibility for this, he says. 
But Robert Bristow, Medical Director of Emergency Management at New York Presbyterian Hospital, really piqued my interest when he discussed the role of community building in creating resiliency and preventing violence after disasters.

Bristow pointed out something we know well: our communities need fixing. We live close together but don’t form relationships, he says. Community building efforts increase trust and resiliency which leads to a quicker and calmer restoration of society after disasters.

And that got me thinking. Community and community building seem like integral strands in the DNA of God’s people. As messengers of good news and restoration in a broken world, this strikes me as a good opportunity to think about practical ways we can participate in this larger conversation—not only regarding disaster response in particular but also the larger challenge of community building.
How the early church responded to disaster and need

The early church was noted for their response to disasters and those in need. In the New Testament, we find several references of Gentile churches raising money to support Judean believers suffering from famine. In the early chapters of Acts, we get a repeated description of the lives of early believers, how they met together frequently, ate together all the time, and shared their resources. If someone was in need, those with more provided. They took care of each other—and those around them.

It was their way of life.

“People did not convert to Christianity solely because of what the early Christians believed,” writes Joseph Hllerman in When the Church Was a Family. “They converted because of the way in which the early Christian’s behaved… The ancient Christians were known for their love for one another.”

This was noticed by those outside the church. Hellerman quotes the pagan Roman emperor Julian who notes Christians’ “benevolence to strangers” and how “the impious Galileans support not only their own poor, but ours as well.”

Hellerman also quotes church father Dionysius who writes about a devastating plague in Alexandria, where Christians were “visiting the sick without a thought as to the danger” and “drawing upon themselves the sickness from their neighbors.” In contrast, Dionysius notes that “the conduct of the heathen as the exact opposite…. those who were in the first stages of the disease they thrust away, and fled from their dearest. They would even cast them in the roads half-dead.”

Pondering modern church

When we contemplate the early church and threats to our own modern communities, it raises some questions.

First, it challenges us examine ourselves. Are we, like our ancient brothers and sisters, known for our love? For how we take care of each other? For how we treat the stranger? The vulnerable? Does our response to pandemics and disasters draw similar observations? If not, perhaps our discussion needs to start with rethinking the way we do church.

At the same time, however, we should process questions related to how we work and interact with the communities in which we live right now.

Building relationships within our neighborhoods and communities is part of loving our neighbor. We do it not because we want to survive a disaster but because this is who we are: those who act in the best interest of others, share in sufferings, act on behalf of the vulnerable, and bring divine order into disorder as we participate with God in his kingdom-coming.

As corporate groups, are we already participating in community wide efforts to aid the vulnerable? Is our community having conversations about response to local, regional and national disasters? Are we talking with our community at large about ways we can contribute locally in times of crisis? If not, perhaps it’s time to initiate those conversations.

As individual families and smaller groups, we need to think about what kind of relationships we have with our neighbors. Do we know their names? Their stories? Do we eat together? Have we thought about ways to build community in our neighborhoods? Do we watch out for each other? What about strangers? How do we approach them? Or the ill and suffering in our neighborhoods?

Are we prepared to be information-givers in an emergency? Are we able to help others know what to expect during a disaster? Do we know where water and food distribution points are in our community? Do we know what our community’s response system looks like? How long it takes services to restore?

And does our disaster planning go beyond providing for ourselves? Have we thought about including the potential needs of our neighbors? The vulnerable in our neighborhoods?

If we answer truthfully, some of our answers may leave us uneasy. Too often, our church communities don’t carry the same reputation as the early church. And many of us unconsciously buy into our culture’s radical individualism, which interferes with our ability to focus on the needs of others—and our trust in God, both individually and as a people.

A place to begin
But it gives us a place to begin. Learning what it means to love our neighbor and each other as God’s people, in and of itself, is a step towards becoming light in times of darkness—be it personal sufferings or national power outages.

The questions and challenges raised in American Blackout are opportunities to contemplate practical ways to live out what it means to be the people of God—and that brings God-talk into open spaces

If you missed American Blackout, you can watch it again on Wednesday, November 13, at 9pm EST. If you want more information cyber-attacks on the U.S. power grid see How Would We Handle a Nationwide Blackout? or “American Blackout”: Is National Geographic’s Take on Cyberattack accurate? And if you are looking for more about how we can be the people that God calls and enables us to be, I highly recommend Joseph Hellerman’s When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus' Vision for Authentic Christian Community.