When missile-alert sirens blared across Hawaii last month, citizens were expected to hunker down inside and wait for help—at least according to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, which tells citizens to “Get Inside, Stay Inside, and Stay Tuned.”
That’s not exactly what happened. After the all-clear was announced an agonizing 38 minutes later, online videos surfaced of panicked Hawaiians rushing to their cars to evacuate. Few had stocked food or water; even fewer had bothered to run through emergency plans. One video showed a family frantically lowering their daughter into a storm drain.
According to Brig. Gen. Kenneth Hara, who issued a report on the incident this week, the “response and recovery sections” of the state’s emergency plan “were minimally developed. The plan lacked details for sheltering, county coordination, and protocols for decision to send out all clear or false missile alert messages.”
Hawaii Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard agrees. She’s called the state’s slow response an “epic failure of leadership.” In response, she introduced the Civil Defense Accountability Bill, which aims to “evaluate and strengthen preparedness nationwide” against future attacks. Eleven other members from both parties, many who have questioned their own states’ preparedness, have signed onto the legislation.
In a statement, Gabbard said she wants to “ensure the lessons learned from Hawaii’s false alert are used to identify and fix preparedness gaps nationwide.”
Among other things, the bill requires the Federal Emergency Management Agency to conduct a review of how prepared civilians are to deal with such a disaster so families aren’t running to storm drains the next time around. It would mandate studies in a number of states with a higher risk for attack, such as Hawaii, Washington, California, and Alaska. Gabbard hopes to advance some elements of the legislation in the upcoming debate over the National Defense Authorization Act.
Civilian training and preparedness, known as civil defense, dates back to the Cold War. Beginning in the early 1950s, the Federal Civil Defense Administration, which later became FEMA, “partnered with industries, schools, and the media to prepare citizens for nuclear war,” explained Kristyn Karl, a professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. Schools and community centers taught students to “duck and cover” in case of a Soviet attack. Volunteer “spotters” took up positions on the Canadian border to watch for incoming Soviet bombers. Communities prepared fallout shelters, drilled evacuation plans, and stockpiled emergency supplies.
Relative to today, “non-professional participation in these programs was actually quite high,” said Patrick Roberts, a public policy professor at Virginia Tech who specializes in emergency management. As the Cold War wound on, they declined in popularity. Americans began to view civil defense educational videos, for example, as Cold War propaganda.
The infamous “duck and cover” videos “made it sound like going down to your fallout shelter won’t be any different than hanging out and playing games with your family,” said Alex Wellerstein, also of the Stevens Institute of Technology. That cavalier tone struck citizens as dishonest, given that the U.S. was pursuing a policy of mutually assured destruction and post-war survival was unlikely.
The system was further weakened as local officials siphoned off funds toward disasters they experienced regularly: fires, floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes. “State and local governments want to do the right thing, but they have a lot of competing demands for resources and their level of expertise varies,” said Roberts. As a result, nuclear drills were phased out, warning systems aged, and awareness campaigns died down. Fallout structures were converted, fell into disrepair, and construction lagged. To this day, Hawaii has no public fallout shelters.
The federal response to a North Korean nuclear attack would be massive. FEMA, the Health and Human Services Department, and a slew of other agencies would rush to the scene of the disaster. The Department of Defense would mobilize to move in supplies and evacuate the sick and dying. First responders would rush in from surrounding states.
Yet given the magnitude of such a disaster—Patrick Roberts described it as “one hundred 9/11s”—victims would have to fend for themselves, at least in the initial days after an attack. “The federal response will take some time to get going,” said Dr. Jerome Hauer, the former New York State Commissioner of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, “and there’s going to be logistical problems.”
According to a confidential study Hauer led, not a single country, state, or city is prepared to deal with the aftermath of a nuclear attack. He estimates that roughly a third of emergency workers would stay home to help loved ones. Those that do respond would have to contend with decimated communications and transportation infrastructure. Nearby cities might withhold aid out of fear that they would be targeted in a secondary strike, and the Defense Department, traditionally relied upon during massive disasters to move men and equipment, could be busy with combat operations abroad. Even the base plan for FEMA’s response to a nuclear incident, the Nuclear/Radiological Incident Annex, admits that the disaster would “overwhelm” response capabilities “at all levels of government and the private sector.”
The magnitude of such a disaster tends to overwhelm citizens. “If people conceive of [a nuclear strike] as the big flash, and that’s it, they shut their mind down as to what comes next,” said Wellerstein. The key, he said, is getting communities to recognizes that local preparedness can save thousands of lives. The disaster undoubtedly be “terrible,” he said, “but there are degrees of terrible.”
Given renewed anxiety over North Korea, more communities than ever may be considering how terrible a strike would be. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “Nuclear fear is, for better or worse, back again, and this produces an opportunity,” explained Karl in an email. This fear could spur the development of new initiatives, like “virtual reality, graphic novels, and digital tools and apps”—the digital equivalents of duck-and-cover videos. “The goal,” she wrote, “is not to stoke unnecessary fear but to understand that anxiety is a natural response to risk and can be used to encourage behaviors that lessen anxiety and prepare Americans’ to respond in the best way possible.”