Other Reasons Why Las Vegas is the Least Survivable Major City In North America

April 20, 2012

First, a bit of a disclaimer. I  have a personal history of considering survivable environmental issues, then changing jobs – or even relocating my family – when I see dangers (see below for details).  So the issue of living in the least survivable major city in North America is no small matter to me.

Now to Las Vegas, which is the least survivable major city in North America – and, it is also one of the cities most at risk for natural – or man-made – disaster.  Let’s look at the survivable issues first …

Perhaps the most obvious issue is that Las Vegas is in the heart of the Mojave Desert.  There is virtually no arable land closer than the San Joachin valley, which is an intensely-irrigated desert land itself – as vulnerable as Las Vegas to water-related disasters.  Which means there is no land within a day’s drive where evacuees could hope to support themselves off the land.  That seems almost beyond comprehension to easterners who know that within 50 miles of even the largest city there is rich farmland which could support at least some evacuees over a long term.  But this stark reality lays the groundwork for all the other problems faced by Las Vegas as the Least Survivable Major City in North America.

Most major cities exist on what industry calls a “just in time” or JIT inventory system. This means that big cities don’t hoard weeks or months worth of food and other necessities of life.  Typically, a major city depends on road and rail transport to bring in fresh supplies on a daily basis, and store shelves and local warehouses hold no more than two or three days’ worth of food.  This wasn’t always true – during the height of the Cold War, civil defense shelters stockpiled food and potable water to help the immediate survivors of a nuclear attack continue to survive for at least a couple of weeks (the time needed, so the theory went, for the worst of the radioactivity to decay – one reason “dirty” bombs such as radio-cobalt bombs were created, to murder the survivors when they crawled out of their hidey-holes).  But today, even the pretense of civil defense stockpiles are little more than distant memories.  So if a disaster strikes and road transport is shut down, no major city is likely to have more than two or three days’ worth of inventory of even non-perishable food.  Within a week, survivors of any disaster will be very hungry, and within a couple of weeks, die-offs due to starvation will begin to hit – first taking children, the elderly and the infirm, but eventually taking everyone (at least those without the stomach for cannibalism).  In this case, Las Vegas is no better off than any other big city – but because of the next problem, we’re in worse shape.

Most major cities – especially those “back east,” have a whole network of primary and secondary highways leading into the city from other relatively nearby major metropolitan areas.  When New Orleans was hit by Katrina seven years ago, there were many major highways leading out (for evacuation) and in (for resupply).  Other major cities are similarly blessed by abundant transportation, but not Las Vegas.  Whether we’re looking at evacuation or resupply, Las Vegas has very few in-and-out highways.  There is just one Interstate – I-15 – and it leads to LA, 300 miles away, and Salt Lake City, nearly 500 miles away.  Then there are just two major “surface” highways – US-93 and US-95, that lead, in circuitous fashion, to Phoenix and Flagstaff in Arizona, and the desert desolation of Northern Nevada in the other direction.  There are virtually no secondary roads which lead anywhere that could either support evacuees or bring in supplies, unless you think that Pahrump or Beatty , Sandy Valley or Laughlin, Mesquite or Searchlight (remote flyspeck desert towns, one and all) could either host survivors or resupply a disaster-struck city).  That means that Las Vegas is easily isolated – and either a terror attack or a major quake (and Vegas is ground-zero for several major fault lines) could literally isolate this city from either evacuation or resupply.

Worse than most cities – which are built adjacent to rivers, lakes or other natural water supplies (nearby metropolises Los Angeles and Phoenix being noted exceptions) – desert-bound Las Vegas is critically dependent on pumped-in water to keep people alive.  During the five-month 100-plus-degree summer, people could barely survive a day without potable drinking water – if the water was cut off, dehydration deaths would begin within 24-36 hours, and dying of thirst is a much quicker death than dying of hunger.  Yet unlike most major cities, Las Vegas has very little in the way of available ground water, even though the city was actually built adjacent to an artesian spring.  In fact, Las Vegas was first laid down as a watering stop for Southern Pacific transcontinental railroad trains, and its name, in Spanish, references the water-supported meadows that distinguished the city’s site from adjacent dust-dry desert.  However, that spring is vastly insufficient for a city of 2 million (plus tourists and snowbirds), and for most of its water, it is dependent on drought-stricken Lake Mead.  But even if the drought ends and Lake Mead begins to refill, the lake’s water has to flow uphill to reach Las Vegas, and that means massive amounts of electricity are needed just to pump water the 20 or so miles from the lake to the city.  Any disaster which disrupts electricity will make Las Vegas a parched deathtrap within just a day or two.

Which brings up another vulnerability.  Las Vegas is notoriously dependent on electricity – far more than most other major cities – for its very survival.  Three things that the city depends upon for survival – water, AC and the corner gas pump – depend on electricity.  Every day of the year, Las Vegas requires sufficient uninterrupted electricity to keep life-sustaining water flowing.  Beyond that, for five months a year, the city depends on electricity to keep the life-sustaining air conditioning pumping.  And less you think that AC is a luxury, not a necessity, try sustaining life when the daytime temperature is 110 or higher – especially if you’re a child, or elderly, or have health problems.  Certainly, with sufficient water (and shade), a healthy adult can adapt and tolerate the heat.  But every summer, the media buzzes with stories of house-bound seniors who die from the heat in cities like Chicago and New York because they don’t have AC or even just electrically-driven fans.  If Chicago’s summer heat can kill (and I used to live there, I know how brutal it can be), imagine how much worse Las Vegas would be without AC … especially when the water supply is also dependent on that same electricity.  Power transmission is vulnerable to earthquakes and other natural disasters, not to mention terrorism.  Other cities – especially in the Northeast in winter – go for a week or more without electricity when snowstorms hit, so it’s not inconceivable that Las Vegas could lose power, too.  What is inconceivable is the staggering death toll that a week without electricity would wreak on the city, especially if it was caused by an earthquake or other event which also disrupted ground transportation.

I’d like to add one final factor here.  Most major cities – should a survival-threatening disaster strike – have sufficient nearby cities to absorb a refugee population.  When Katrina hit, a dozen major cities (each with a million-plus population) were available to provide shelter to refugees – while those who stayed in New Orleans suffered, nobody who chose to evacuate was turned aside, or had any trouble finding shelter, food, water and other life-essentials.  Las Vegas is not like that.  First, the distances involved are mind-boggling to easterners who are used to having major cities every couple of hundred miles, at worst.  Atlanta, for instance, has major shelter cities not much more than 100 miles away in every direction, and it is not uncommon in that characteristic.  But in Las Vegas, it’s different.  To the north, Salt Lake City is the next city on the road out, and it’s nearly 500 miles away – and like Las Vegas, it is a desert city with limits on its population-supporting infrastructure.  Due east, the first really major city is Oklahoma City, well over a thousand miles away.  As you head that direction, you’ll pass through Flagstaff (250 miles), Albuquerque (600 miles) and Amarillo 950 miles), but none of those could support a significant refugee population.  Heading northwest, you’ll reach San Francisco in just over 600 miles – and heading Southeast, you’ll reach Los Angeles in about 300 miles and San Diego in 400 miles.  But like Salt Lake City, those are actually desert cities, without the infrastructure to easily absorb a million or so evacuees – especially if the disaster which hits Las Vegas impacts them as well.  Finally, to the Southeast, there’s Phoenix, the only desert city that’s bigger than Las Vegas – and one that shares most of the vulnerabilities of Las Vegas.  Even worse, much of the road to Phoenix is two-lane blacktop, not ideal to support a major evacuation.  And that’s it – there is nowhere else to go, and if Las Vegas needed to be evacuated, the limitations on exit highways and the limitations on day-drive destinations would have a critical survival impact.

This is a long blog, and it covers most of the reasons (beyond drought, which I’ve already covered) – so I’ll deal with the threats to Las Vegas in another blog post.  Stay tuned.

Ned Barnett – Nevada Conservative

Now, as promised, here is my personal history of recognizing and dealing with potential disasters.

First, in the mid-70s, I learned about the remarkably high earthquake risk in South Carolina (Charleston was devastated in the late 1880s, and the fault line is still active.  Realizing that I lived downstream from the world’s largest earthen dam – which would be vulnerable to a quake – and also realizing that I lived on one side of the river it dammed and my job was on the other side, I changed jobs to avoid the risk of being cut off from my family by a natural disaster.  Later, I realized that the Barnwell Nuclear facility and the (nuclear) Savannah River Plant were also vulnerable to that fault line, and that weather patterns would blow fallout from a disaster toward where I lived – so I sought an out-of-town job and relocated. The new quake hasn’t happened yet, but it will, and while I miss South Carolina, I don’t miss that doom hanging over my head.

Then, about 20 years later, living in Palm Beach County about five minutes from the ocean (in a house with a canal for a next-door neighbor), I did some studying and realized that the Atlantic Coast of Florida was 20 years past due for a major hurricane.  Once again, I began looking for an out-of-state job, relocated my family … and the next summer, Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida.  My old home was 50 miles north of the disaster, but clearly I was on the right track in assessing the risk and getting out of Dodge.

Which is why I’m so concerned about living in Las Vegas.  It’s another disaster waiting to happen.


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