EP 23 The Korea Effect with Dr. William R. Forctchen
[TODD DEVOE] Hi, this is Todd DeVoe with EM Weekly, and I’m here with William Forstchen, the author of the smash hit One Second After. And in the emergency management world, this book, I know has been… we’ve been talking about it. And he has two follow-up books after that one, and we’re going to talk a little bit about his book and I really want to get into the EMP aspect of it. So, William, welcome to EM Weekly. How are you doing today?
[FORSTCHEN] I’m doing great. And looking forward to chatting with you.
[TODD DEVOE] Can you tell me a little bit about how you got into writing about the EMP and your experience with it?
[FORSTCHEN] It would go all the way back to 2004. I was up in Washington DC with my friend Newt (inaudible). At that time, Newt and I were working on a fiction series about the American civil war. We were going to meet for a couple of days and plot out on this book. And so happens that was the exact same day that the 2004 Congressional Report EMP came out. Newt had attended some of that meeting, with expressing frustration that the media had not picked up on it at all. We’re chatting about it over dinner and finally, there’s a like a challenge that was tossed out, and that is, maybe it wasn’t needed if somebody would write a popular fiction book to start getting the word out. Shortly after Newt stepped out to me with Congressman Barlett, who is a real hero. He was the one that sent it to commission, and said the same thing to me, that the word is just not out there. I went home, I (got fast with the job). It would take five years of publishers rejecting the book, and back and forth, until it was finally published in 2009, and it suddenly became a New York Times best-seller. And today, the rest is man history. So, that’s the thumbnail version of a very long journey of five years.
[TODD DEVOE] Yeah, I mean, you can tell when you read the book, there’s a lot of detail in the book, and one of the things I really found interesting though is, I read the book just after we were doing some swine flu issues that we had here in southern California. And one of the conversations that we were having in the emergency operations center with the city manager and the chief of police, and county health, and all those people on the round table, was the idea of social distancing, and when we might have to make that decision. If we had to make the decision… social distancing obviously is when we’re telling people they cannot go out to the movies, they can’t do any public gathering, you know, so it’s a really big deal. Because now, you’re suspending, potentially, first and fourth amendment rights. And that conversation happened, and when I was reading in One Second After, when the town got together… the town elected officials and obviously, some people who were kind of put in there because of their expertise, we’re talking about food rationing, and all this other kind of stuff that was occurring, I was like: “Wow, this is a real conversation that would happen in the EOC”, and I was… that’s the part that impressed me. And that was really quick in the beginning of the book. So, from there, it just really did kind of hit home on how realistic that book was. So, when you were doing your research, did you talk to people in the emergency operations centers and stuff?
[FORSTCHEN] I love getting this question. Well, part of that five-year journey… first, let’s do the book. So, if you bear with me for a two-minute answer…
[TODD DEVOE] For sure.
[FORSTCHEN] … I wandered for about a year trying to get the book started, and I got caught in the Tom Clancy model, you know? We have a hero, the bad guys have bombs, and one guy that goes along to stop the others. And then I had the gestalt. I was struggling with the book, I couldn’t get it off-center, and I’m sitting at a graduations ceremony, I teach at a small, wonderful Christian college here, in North Carolina, Montreat College. You have 500 kids, you get to know every one of them. One reason I love being there. And I’m sitting at the graduations ceremony, and it was like, way after, (this thought got me) on the side of the head. It was: write about us! Write about my town, write about my kids, write about the people I teach for, the community I live with. By the way, the town of Black Mountain in my novel is a real place. So, the very next day, I’m out interviewing. I live in a small town. (inaudible) the chief of police, give him a call: “Can I interview you?”. He’s running down stuff I never thought of. One of the really (inaudible) for me was going to a pharmacy! Talking to a pharmacist for an hour. Also, autobiographical, my father was (inaudible), and he was fighting at the last months of his life. (And the director there), I presented hundreds of scenarios, I choose like, my guy, my worst nightmare. So, I feel a lot of (inaudible) from all the way up to Congressman Barlett down to… you know, and I shouldn’t say “down to”, the people who work beyond the stoplight. The local police officer, your pharmacist, a nurse, doctor. How do you run a hospital with this? So, that’s where I got the data. And then it became easy to write the book. It was also very disturbing because I’m setting it in my own town.
[TODD DEVOE] Right.
[FORSTCHEN] Just an amusing side note here, I just had friends that I haven’t seen in quite a few years drop over, and they’re like: hey, we just drove by at the spot where some bad guys got hung in your novel! Hanged, or whatever. I’m like: it’s a novel, guys! “No, we took a picture of it!”.
[TODD DEVOE] You two bring up a lot of good issues. One is, diabetes and drugs that are saving lives every day, that are no longer going to be there. And you know, with the character in the book, with the daughter of your hero, having the whole diabetic issue going on. And that’s, for sure, true. But the other one that you brought up that I never really thought about in a large-scale disaster, and I guess I did in the back of my mind, but just kind of brought it to the fore, was the idea, the psych issues, and what do you do with the people that are on psych drugs, knowing that, at some point, they’re going to be off their medication.
[TODD DEVOE] Do you suspend their constitutional right to free roaming around, knowing that they’re going to become a public safety issue at some point? Whether they’re schizophrenic, or bipolar, or whatever issues that they’re fighting with, and the drugs that are keeping them stable. And that was… we actually had a conversation, a bunch of emergency managers, based on your book, about what would we do, you know, here in California if we had a large-scale earthquake. Just not even something nation-wide, but what do you do with those people if for six months they can’t get a hold of their drugs? And so, what made you bring that part of it in the book?
[FORSTCHEN] That came out of the pharmacist. Again, I live in a small town, so her name is Elizabeth, and we’re sitting there, having a cup of coffee, and I present her with the question. She actually broke down in tears talking about it. And it made me realize, you wanna know the person who knows actually the intimate details, the most about your town? It’s your pharmacist. Not your doctor.
[TODD DEVOE] Right.
[FORSTCHEN] It’s your pharmacist! He filled the prescription, and she’s rattling off pancreatic enzyme disorder. Go off meds for a week, you’ll die. And there are people on (inaudible) medication, people on heart medication, cancer medication. She said: in about 30 days, you would have somewhere between one half to one percent of the population that would be in a deeply psychotic state. People who were institutionalized 60 years ago, and now you just make sure they have a pill every day.
[TODD DEVOE] Right.
[FORSTCHEN] And it adds to that the stress, the fear, everything else, you’re going to have a 5%, 10% of the population that is going to be in a psychotic episode. And you gotta deal with that, and yeah, what is the constitutional place? Let me tell one more of it. Talking with a friend, he was a Warden of a prison. I presented him with a question: what do you do? At the end of five days, when none of your employees, guards, are showing up, do you open up cells? Tell these people: “be nice, go home?” Or do you shoot? Maybe I would let the non-violent offenders out, but what do you do with the violent ones? You walk cell to cell, shoot them? And then like, some Twilight Zone episode, as you’re done popping off the 30 bad hombre in your prison, the lights come back on, and then what? A good way of looking at this is, look what happened with Katrina. The stories about the one hospital where they started euthanizing some of the patients there. Another one with 50 elders were found floating (in the ceiling of a nursing home). We, as a society, don’t wanna think about it, we’re not prepared for it, we have no plan. It is a very frustrating nutshell.
[TODD DEVOE] I do realize that we are definitely a fragile society, and if you think of hurricane Sandy, and you have the people that are eating out the trash bins, and that was only, you know, a fairly short storm compared to a long-term issue, you know? And there were people that were not ready and they’re eating rotten food out of the trash bins. And you talk about the fact that, in your story, and the crazy part about this is that you are set up into the local mountains, where most people, and in this later book here, you kind of addressed that where the guy says: “yeah, the skills I learned was when I skipped school and went hunting.” That’s a skill that’s being used today, and he kind of makes fun of your history teacher and says: “Yeah, what did you learn from history?”, and they kind of banter back and forth about that. But that’s so true, because those of us that are now living in cities and stuff, I mean, people would not know how to dress an animal, or to even farm, for that matter. Victory gardens are very far and few in between, and people are not prepared for that large-scale long-term disaster. How long do you think, based upon that, how long do you think, with your research, do we have until we have a societal collapse?
[FORSTCHEN] Those types of things are based on human behavior. Cyber-attacks, DMCs, infrastructure collapse, financial collapse, they’re human behavior. And it suddenly becomes (inaudible) about human behavior collectively. There are even natural phenomena that are totally beyond our control, such as solar storms, and things like that. It is inevitable. I pray, you know, you say: maybe not in my lifetime. But what about my daughter’s lifetime? We have built the most stunning technological society. I mean, look at what we’ve accomplished since World War II. And it’s very fragile. If you had to pull one little piece out of that paradise, that’s electricity, and everything goes into collapse. We can compare to our Sandy, Katrina, big earthquakes, those are regional. You know, the day after Katrina, my college was loading up big trucks, the whole emergency supply. I mean, aid was coming in from all around the country. But when you have a nationwide of that, ain’t going to be no way. Whatever you’ve prepared for beforehand, probably you’re going to have afterward. And we are (willfully) unprepared for this.
[TODD DEVOE] Yeah, and I know that prepper movement, for lack of a better term, was kind of made fun of, I guess, a little bit, during when… the History Channel was doing the whole prepper thing.
[FORSTCHEN] I hated that doomsday preparatory. Despised it.
[TODD DEVOE] Yeah, me too.
[FORSTCHEN] I’ve talked with tens of thousands of preppers, and 99% of them are defense people, family people, (inaudible) oriented. They’re not the nut jobs (inaudible).
[TODD DEVOE] And this is what we preach as emergency managers, right? We have the community emergency response team. We want people to have two weeks’ worth of food and water and stuff at their home so they’re ready for that disaster. But yet, when we talk about the “prepper”, you know, everybody is like: oh, those crazy prepper people! And it’s kind of like a mixed message that we’re sending the population, isn’t it?
[FORSTCHEN] It is. And I point out one particular news cast in Sandy. And that’s where I grew up. I grew up just on the Jersey side of New York, and I knew a little of people that were trapped. And I remember it was by Diane Sawyer, she’s visiting a home, and the home is crying: “I have children and we haven’t had water for two days, and we don’t have food”, and da da da da da. And at the end, Diane Sawyer said: we made sure Mrs. (inaudible) had five gallons of drinking water and three days of food. And I wanted to scream. Lady, you had four days’ warning! This was going to be a big one. You could have filled your bathtub, for starters. Take soda bottles, fill them up! Get some canned food, now! Fill the basement. Don’t stand there and (inaudible) your hands on the victims. Survival 101! The stuff we used to learn in boy scouts.
[TODD DEVOE] Right!
[FORSTCHEN] That points out (inaudible). We are such a society now of (inaudible).
[TODD DEVOE] Right.
[FORSTCHEN] And then, three days in, people are: oh, it’s terrible! Remember with Sandy? I mean, people waiting (inaudible) at McDonalds, that the ATMs were down. (inaudible) to get their cell phones recharged, they get five gallons of gasoline to that generator that only works for four hours.
[TODD DEVOE] When did we, as a nation, stopped being ready? Like, if you think about World War II with the victory gardens, and my grandparents, even my dad, for that matter, he was born in 1930. They all kind of always hoarded stuff, for lack of a better term, “Oh, you never know when you’re going to need it!”. And you know, our basement was full of stuff that, you know, you’re like: what the heck is this here for? And you kind of address it in your new book with the computers, and people just kind of toss them away. When did we become that “everything is disposable” society?
[FORSTCHEN] Well, we moved a couple of generations away from the depression and World War II. They were shaped by depression, and my parents, and even me, born 20 years later, you (inaudible) the stories about: “Well, you never know! You never know when this is going to happen.” And as a kid you kind of laugh at this, but when you’re older, you realize that. A very good illustration, I was head of admissions at a little boarding school up in Maine, many years ago. Really upscale German industrialist, being transferred to the United States, he visits our school. We’re talking, at the end of the day, he’s asking if we have vocational ed. So I say: well, in boarding schools, we don’t, we’re academic. “Well, I gotta find something with vocational ed.” Why? “Because my father”, this gentleman back in the 1980’s, “my father was a professor, a professor at Heidelberg.” There was no Heidelberg University in 1945! But had had a taste of it, like his father, and his father before him. And he put the food on the table for my family for three years, taking cans out of garbage stuff, to fashioning them into something useful. And the guy (inaudible): “I want my son to have the skill that he can (inaudible)“. Unless we had a series of real adversity, we disconnect. And that’s the problem we, as a society, face today. What skills do I have (inaudible)? Or writer? (inaudible) come up my driveway, screaming: “He’s the one, he wrote the book, he made it happen!” But, in all seriousness, I don’t necessarily have a skill. Therefore, I’m a prepper. I practice what’s preached.
[TODD DEVOE] Talking about skill sets of people, when I was growing up in New York, in high school, we had a program where we could go to… it was called a BOASIES, I forget what it stands for. But it’s a vocational education program, and kids went to school to become printers, they went to school to become carpenters, there’s a LVM program. All that program was there. And when I came here to California, we have a program here in South Cal called… well, it was there, it’s really kind of been dismantled, called ROP, it’s Regional Occupational Program, where you could do the same thing. And all those programs have gone away. I mean, I took woodshop and metal shop when I was in high school, you can’t even do those classes anymore. I mean, kids do not know how to work with their hands, or build anything any longer. And I think it is detrimental to our society. I think everybody is so geared on getting kids into college, but they forget about the vocational education programs.
[FORSTCHEN] We’re also so incredibly wired, (inaudible). But we’ve only been a communication society since the 1850’s. Your great great grandfather was at Gettysburg, and the great great grandma up in New Hampshire new within a day or two what was happening. Prior to that, you walked out the door to go to war, or go West, or whatever, you were totally disconnected. We’re not… we can’t even contextualize that now. My daughter was up at Michigan. I can instantly contact her at any time. Think of the universal panic if we are totally disconnected from the news, what’s happening, with our family, with our kids, with our grandparents, all of this goes silent. Silence is what’s coming from your (inaudible).
[TODD DEVOE] True, yeah. You’re so right. Especially with the fact of… I mean, think about it. When people go without their cell phone, they’re freaking out for a few hours.
[FORSTCHEN] You leave your cell phone behind, you turn around and you drive back 20 miles to get it. And then you check it immediately. Who called while I was disconnected for 20 minutes? That’s how… I’m not pointing at a younger generation, I’m the same way! If I go out the door and I don’t have my cell phone, I turn around and come back.
[TODD DEVOE] Yeah. I have done that myself, you know. I teach as well, I teach emergency management at a local community college, and now we’ve moved everything to being online. And I’m actually teaching kids that are across the world, because they’re military contract students. I teach them across the world and worry about… you know, e-mail instantaneously. And if I don’t reply back to them within a day, they get, you know, they’re like…
[FORSTCHEN] Oh, they’re freaked!
[TODD DEVOE] Yeah, they’re freaked out. It’s like: hey, hey! Don’t worry! We’re going to be ok. Just because it took me two days to return your email it doesn’t mean that I fell off the face of the planet, you know?
[FORSTCHEN] We’re so wired, I had a very scary moment about five years ago. My closest buddy, his son was severely wounded in Afghanistan, and he called me up to tell me, and there was a lot of tears. We weren’t sure how he was going to do for a day or two. He literally talked to his son, but in 30 minutes after, he was dead.
[TODD DEVOE] Wow.
[FORSTCHEN] Yeah. They got him on the helicopter, got him back to base, “ok, we have your dad’s phone number, talk to him.” And then he’s talking to the doctor, the doctor is saying: this is the injury, he’ll be back in Germany, and we will keep you posted.” Think about that! My god! The other end of the world, it shows how incredibly wired we are. What a gift it is. We have to think about how vulnerable it is to how easily it can collapse.
[TODD DEVOE] I’m going to ask you the pinning question here, and specifically talking about North Korea. We’re watching some of their missiles go up and fail, and there’s a guy who I listen to out here on the West Coast, his name is Brian Sutz, he’s a former army guy, a pretty intelligent man. He’s on this local radio station out here. And he was saying that maybe those failures that went up weren’t necessarily failures. They were testing the right height that they needed to get to do an EMP.
[FORSTCHEN] Oh, yeah.
[TODD DEVOE] What do you think?
[FORSTCHEN] I urge folks to check out some of the material that’s been written recently by Dr. Peter Pry. There’s been an article from a guy, James Wollfby, former director of the CIA. That scenario is very serious. So, what our times defined as failures, as in fact, reality tests for EMP capability. The Iranians are doing it, and so is North Korea. We are staring into the barrel of dust. And then (inaudible) down the road for 20 years with North Korea, and it’s coming on the loose. I personally feel, within a year, we’re going to see a military confrontation. With (inaudible) was on July 28, in the flight police. And you don’t need (prestigious) items, and debris entry shielding (inaudible). (inaudible) and blow it. They’re already capable of hitting those woods with EMP strikes. This is real. This is like living in Europe in the summer of 1939, that’s how I would call it.
[TODD DEVOE] That’s a pretty dire…
[FORSTCHEN] And we don’t wanna be in a Dunkirk eight months later.
[TODD DEVOE] Right. Right. And it seems to be that people… I mean people, I’m talking about the regular everyday Joe, doesn’t really either care or not pay attention, or they’re just too busy on their cell phones, you know, to know what’s going on. Because if you bring this question up to people, they’re just like: “Yeah, yeah, whatever. I saw that on the news,” or “I didn’t even know they were doing that!”, you know? How do we get that message across to people that this is a serious deal, this is not child’s play anymore?
[FORSTCHEN] You’re asking a question that I don’t quite know the answer to. How do we get people to wake up? I mean, I know a number of people, besides (inaudible) beating the drum for years. You know, I teach a course, World War I and World War II. I’ll start in three weeks. And the opening move for my very first class, I point out how many Americans died on the Western front in 1986. Which now, we’re on our 100th anniversary. And then I present the question: how the hell… how the hell did the assassination of (inaudible) from Austrian, you know, Hungarian empire, in a place called Sarajevo, that nobody knew where it was, how did that assassination wind up with close to 100 thousand Americans dying in Europe four years later? And millions of people dying, you know, English, German, French. It’s too surreal! If I wrote it as a novel, say in 1912, people would have said: “this is crazy! Because the archduke gets shot the whole world goes into a war?”, well, there (are triggers) back and forth between Russia and Austria, and Germany, and one trigger kept popping after another. And we were coming on a global war, which by the way, everybody says: “all the boys will be home by Christmas, don’t worry about it.”
[TODD DEVOE] Right.
[FORSTCHEN] Yeah. And then 20 years later, we have a repeat. World War II. Even bigger.
[TODD DEVOE] World War II is really just a continuation of World War I, right?
[TODD DEVOE] Ok.
[FORSTCHEN] Yeah. I used to teach two separate courses, World War I and World War II. And last year, I morphed them together into one class, and I actually call it the 30 years’ war. I mean, it’s really hard to (inaudible). So, doesn’t matter how highly impossible that seems, we should take that lesson and (inaudible), it can happen again.
[TODD DEVOE] I agree with you. If you think about what just happened with us with 9/11, that… it’s article 5, right? Of NATO. That’s why we have everybody over in Afghanistan and in Iraq as well, is because of article 5, which is very similar to the stuff that happened for World War I, which created everybody to go into that war as well. And yeah, I mean, that right there… if we have something where North Korea pops something off, or even over Japan, we’re going to be back into that situation, where we’re all going to be at war again. Am I wrong on that?
[FORSTCHEN] I keep mentioning it. If I gotta look at the German wars, you know, one of those long German wars that go (inaudible). What the war essentially means is, it’s a downward spiral of unpredictable violence. We don’t bomb civilians. (inaudible) German planes are about to bomb (inaudible), it’s supposed to be called a bomb. Then German planes accidentally bombed London. So, the British bomb Berlin, and they talk: “Oh, we’re really going to bomb you.” And somewhere by 1945, we, the Americans, were popping nuclear weapons.
[TODD DEVOE] Right.
[FORSTCHEN] We’re killing 100,000 people in one night.
[TODD DEVOE] Right.
[FORSTCHEN] It’s (because the war) is a downward spiral of violence. So, if we look at North Korea now, we can certainly strike and take them down in a heartbeat; but whose heartbeat?
[TODD DEVOE] Right.
[FORSTCHEN] What’s going to happen? These things can spin out of control.
[TODD DEVOE] Your books are really telling, and you can tell for sure that you put the time and the effort into… to make them as realistic as possible. What’s next now, after… I haven’t finished your last book. So, I need to finish the last half of your last book. But what’s next? What’s going to happen with that series?
[FORSTCHEN] I’m not going to discuss it with you yet, other than to say, there’s a great line from the Godfather movies, where Michael Corleone says that famous line: “Every time I try to get out, they pull me back in again!” (inaudible).
[TODD DEVOE] Right.
[FORSTCHEN] I swore, when I finished the third book, it’s a very depressing topic. To do the research, and to do it right, it takes a lot out of you. Let’s just say I’m working on something related, and I’m having a massive writer’s block at the moment, I hope my publisher doesn’t hear that. But I should have a book out sometime… (inaudible) or late next year.
[TODD DEVOE] Ok.
[FORSTCHEN] On something related to the topic.
[TODD DEVOE] Those of you who have not read these books, you need to get them. You can get them on Amazon, Audible, all those great places, you can find this book. Find all three of them. I highly recommend them. It’s going to make you think, and as an emergency manager, I really think that this book, you captured what we do; at least in the first book, really well. And the process of recovery, and that’s the part, that’s what I teach, is throughout these last two books, is recovering from these disasters and making everybody whole again, if that’s ever possible, after a large-scale event. So, sir, I’ve had you for a bit here, and I don’t wanna keep you any longer here. But I do have one question for you. Outside of your books, because I already recommended them, what book do you recommend to somebody in emergency management to really get a grasp on the EMP issue?
[FORSTCHEN] Wow! First of all, read the congressional reports of 2004 and 2008. Secondly, I think Ted Koppel, with his book “Lights Out” did an incredibly good job. People might disagree with Ted Koppel on some other things, but he did a very good book called “Lights Out”. Next, I’m going to throw a political pitch in here. I urge anyone who takes this seriously to look up HR2417, House Bill 2417. It’s being cycled through for the third time, and in spite of all the great (inaudible), I wanna believe that this bill is going to get through. It authorizes the (inaudible) to start pushing for infrastructure build-up and infrastructure security. And it’s been shut down twice because the congress, the members of the senate, (inaudible), didn’t have what she wanted. Hopefully, this time it won’t be (failed). HR2417. Look it up, if you can get it online, you can read it. It’s (inaudible), but really, I urge emergency managers, take a good look at the congressional report of ’04 and ’08. That’s the hardcore stuff.
[TODD DEVOE] I’ve actually read that, it’s pretty intense. If anybody is trying to look up about you and your books, how could they find the information on your books?
[FORSTCHEN] My wife is reviving my website… god! (inaudible) infrastructure security, why are we talking about a website? I think it’s OneSecondAfter.com. You can do that or just go on Amazon, punch my name in Amazon, or you can go YouTube. Punch my name in there. I’ve done a lot of talks, and I keep trying to get the word out there. I was an eagle scout, so (inaudible).
[TODD DEVOE] Awesome. Well, sir, thank you so much for being here. Ok, everybody, thank you for listening to our podcast here at EM Weekly. And if you have time to check out, or if you could go to your iTunes and give us a review, check out One Second After. If you haven’t read this series, start right there. It’s a real page turner. I tell you, if you buy the book, you’ll have it done… if you buy the book today and you get it by Amazon, you’ll have it done by the weekend because you’re not going to want to put it down. One Year After is the next book, and The Final Day. Those books right there. The Final Day, it’s funny, because somebody put a criticism of the book and was talking about how the main character cries a lot, and rightfully so, because if you’re that hard of a heart that you can’t have that emotion due to all the loss you just had, you’re not a human being. So, it’s definitely going to be a little bit more emotional than the other books, but man, I tell you, it’s so worth listening or reading those books. So get them at your local place. William, again, thank you so much for being here.
[FORSTCHEN] Thank you for a great interview, I really appreciate it. Thanks for getting the word out there about the issue.