Monday, May 30, 2005

Houston, We Have a Problem: Exploring the Impact of Nuclear Terrorism (Part 1)

Old school crisis planning. We keep these
around as a reminder of the bad old days
when our cities were under constant nuclear
threat. How ready are we today?

Recently, the Washington Post ran an article stating that the US was unprepared for nuclear terrorism:

"The United States is, at the moment, not well prepared to manage an [emergency] evacuation of this sort in the relevant time frame," said Richard Falkenrath, former deputy homeland security adviser and now a fellow at the Brookings Institution. "The federal government currently lacks the ability to [rapidly] generate and broadcast specific, geographically tailored evacuation instructions" across the country, he said.

Right on, Mr. Falkenrath. But, you don’t know the half of it, and I’m guessing that 100-pound brains at the Brookings Institution don’t either. Welcome to my world.

Nature’s Nuke—Tropical Storm Allison hits the beach.

What Hurricanes Tell About Evacuating Cities:

In the summer of 2001, Tropical Storm Tropical Storm Allison came ashore in the Houston region and dropped 37 inches of rain killing twenty-two people and racking up $5 billion in damages. 70,000 homes, including my in-laws, were flooded and thousands of people were displaced. The downtown medical complex was devastated causing the emergency evacuation of hundreds of critical care patients. Four years later the recovery effort is still ongoing.

Back then, I was working for the Texas Division of Emergency Management in the State Operations Center, a cold war relic bunker 40 feet underneath the Department of Public Safety headquarters in Austin. From there representatives for multiple state and federal agencies watched the storm come ashore, and then all hell broke loose.

I was manning a desk in the current operations cell when I got a phone call from a long distance call switch in Houston. I could literally hear the water flowing into the center as the guy on the other end begged for help. The auxiliary power unit on his generators had failed, and without them he couldn’t get his sump pumps started. He said that we had about a half hour before all long-distance service in and out of Houston would be disrupted. I scrambled to coordinate a response, but there was nothing we could do. Too many roads were closed and there was too much chaos to get him the size generator that he needed in time.

Minutes ticked by, and then, as if one cue, everyone’s phones went dead. All the blinking lights on our call routers were dim, and the operations center was suddenly silent. Our multi-million dollar communications system was now useless, and the fourth largest city in the US was now a communications black hole.

Luckily, we had enough satellite phones and volunteer ham radio operators to coordinate the most critical response activities. We sent a team into the Medical Complex, and they turned the Rice University stadium in a heliport. Hundreds of critical care patients, including the neo-natal intensive care unit, were evacuated by air to hospitals throughout the State. Gradually, the city clawed its way back into a functional state. But, in those hours where the power was off and the phones were down, most of the Houston, Harris County, and a good bit of Southeast Texas were on their own. There are hundreds of stories of dramatic rescues, personal courage, and great tragedy.

The State and Federal Government mounted a massive response. I deployed to FEMA’s disaster field office and stayed for a month. It took us weeks to completely get a handle on all the damage and to get everyone the help that they needed. The volunteer community alone prepared and distributed over a million meals to people impacted by the floods.

The 1900 Galveston Hurricane is still relevant history in Texas, so every year before the beginning of hurricane season, we dust of our hurricane plans. The doomsday scenario is a Category Five hurricane landing a direct hit on Houston—Allison’s steroid filled big brother on a rampage. Here in Austin/Travis County we plan on receiving massive amounts of evacuees from the coast in the event of the “big one”.

So what does this have to do with nuclear terrorism and the Post’s article? Allison’s devastation illustrates what happens to cities in a disaster. We had years to plan and warning that the storm was coming. You have time to warn the population and tell them exactly what to. And yet things still go wrong. People still die.

In a nuclear terrorism event, there won’t be any warning days in advance. There won’t be any phone calls from frantic telecom employees trying to save the long distance service. One minute the city is there and the next it isn’t. And in those minutes and hours of chaos following the blast it will be almost impossible for the government to assert any kind of control over how the population behaves. So when I read things like this in the Post: made no mention of the critical factor of wind. But Rand advised that if wind is carrying smoke and the mushroom cloud toward people, they should immediately head perpendicular to it, on foot, for at least a few miles, to get out of the plume's path. Driving would be futile because of impassable roads, Rand said.
"Guidance from fails to indicate the time urgency involved," said Lynn E. Davis, a former undersecretary of state for arms control who was the Rand study's lead author. "We must act in a matter of minutes to survive."

Homeland Security officials said that some of the criticisms of are valid, and that they might change its wording in some places. But they said several experts they consulted believe miles-high winds could carry radiation in a different direction from wind on the ground.

I’m not sure if any of these folks has much actual experience with this type of stuff. There are so many variable involved that you can’t anticipate or plan for. Chaos will reign in the minutes and hours following a nuclear blast. If a Category Five Hurricane is Allison’s older brother, then nuclear terrorism is a platoon of Sept 11th’s. And no amount info on is going to be able to change the bad stuff that will happen following a nuclear blast.

Coming Soon: Part 2
What happens in the minutes and hours after the blast? What will be the challenges of evacuating a city that's just been hit by a nuke? Stayed tuned for more damage to the fair city of Houston, and some death by powerpoint, Alexander style.


At May 31, 2005, Anonymous Whitehall said...

In a terrorist nuke attack, the fallout could kill as many as the initial blast. I researched this for my home, the San Francisco Bay Area, following the news that Norht Korea had missiles that could reach the West Coast.

The point made by RAND is correct that moving a few miles away from the fallout plume could save your life. The problem is, which way is the fallout headed? Fortunately, the government has thought about this one and has prepared. The DOE has a fallout prediction office on call 24/7 that would have predictions out to the media within an hour or less. People could then have the info they need to act.

The remaining problem is to educate the citizens about what to do (or not do) should such an attack take place. We need to decide if a big civil defense education program needs to be undertaken. Maybe the Feds assess the risk of such a nuke to be very low, or at least not worth the political pain of making fallout a big public issue - again.

At May 31, 2005, Blogger Kris Alexander said...

Thanks for the comment.

Having a fallout prediction is one thing, but getting it to the media and to the people in the impact area may be entirely different. Stay tuned.

At June 02, 2005, Blogger mdmhvonpa said...

Fascinating. As a child growing up in Utah, we were quite aware of windage ... ever hear of the Downwinders Association?


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