Between popular video games, TV shows, and movies, the post-apocalyptic genre has become a mainstream interest. Although preparing for the end of the world is nothing new, the recent rise in pop culture of the Zombie Apocalypse has bred a whole new generation of doomsday preppers. Even the government, recognizing the popularity of this phenomenon, has used preparation for a zombie apocalypse as the theme for getting the population to prepare for actual disasters. “You may laugh now, but when it happens you’ll be happy you read this, and hey, maybe you’ll even learn a thing or two about how to prepare for a real emergency.” (Ali S. Khan : CDC Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response)
“The first question in any apocalyptic scenario should be: Do I leave or do I stay?”
Deciding how you are going to survive the end of the world can be a prudent exercise. As a reality TV show, it can even be an entertaining one. But it still ignores the fundamental question of what you are trying to survive and what is the best approach to surviving it.
The four horsemen….
While Zombies have replaced the nuclear war of the 80’s as the most common end of the world scenario, a true preparation specialist must address the most likely apocalyptic events. Let’s look at each of these:
NUCLEAR: Considering the current geopolitical climate, the threat of an all out nuclear exchange between two major super powers has been replaced by the rogue state nuclear player. A full nuclear war between America and Russia or China simply is not realistic and becomes less so as the Cold War recedes further and further from memory. Factor in the current US missile defense shield, and Mutually Assured Destruction is no longer leverage that can be used by aggressors against the US. What has replaced this threat, is a much more realistic scenario where a terrorist organization or a rogue state (Iran, North Korea) can execute a limited nuclear exchange or even just an attack on a US city using a single missile or a smuggled warhead. This creates what is called a localized apocalyptic scenario (LAS). To the people in and around that city, for all intents and purposes, the world has come to an end. There will be no functioning institutions of local government (police, fire, medical), no working utilities (electricity, potable water, gas heat), and potentially no uncontaminated food. This event may or may not come with warning (usually in the form of international relations news), but will require immediate, decisive, action.
BIOLOGICAL: Most closely associated with the Zombie scenario, an epidemic can have devastating consequences under the right circumstances. No matter how virulent the contagion, there will be warning. Public institutions will endure at first and utilities will continue to function. The major potential threat in this scenario is from any panic that may occur. The closure of businesses like grocery stores and gas stations could result in a conflict over diminishing resources. After people run out of supplies kept in their homes, they will begin to venture out. If the epidemic is bad enough, local, state, and federal law enforcement could be stretched thin. There is also the potential for the closure of transportation routes which will only increase of level of panic by those trapped within any cordon.
CHEMICAL: On Saturday, November 10, 1979, a 106-car Canadian Pacific freight train carrying explosive and poisonous chemicals from Windsor, Ontario was derailed in Mississauga. As a result of the derailment, more than 200,000 people were evacuated in what was then the largest peacetime evacuation in North America until the New Orleans evacuation of 2005. March 24th, 1987, a chemical fire at metal processing plant in Nantikocke, PA triggered an evacuation of 16,000 people at 2:20AM. While a chemical event would not be marked by the widespread failure of public institutions and elimination of utilities, it does pose a distinct problem because these events will occur with the least warning and therefore require the most preparation. They are also marked by an immediate need for action (usually evacuation).
NATURAL: Hurricane Katrina and The Boxer Day Tsunami are both perfect examples of a natural LAS. While the warning time varied significantly between the two events, the fact remains that virtually all public institutions came to a complete halt. The only positive aspect of natural events is that preparation is generally possible based on historical data. Hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, and even volcanic eruptions never come as a complete surprise because they almost always occur in regions where those events have occurred before.
Fight or flight?
There’s a scene in War of the Worlds (2011) where Tom Cruise enters his house after narrowly avoiding being killed. He looks at his children and tells them “We’re leaving this house in 30 seconds”. Why doesn’t he stay in his house? What made him decide that he needed to leave and venture out into the unknown?
The first question in any apocalyptic scenario should be: Do I stay or do I leave? The criteria for such a decision must be thought of well in advance because when that day comes, time for extended analysis simply will not be there. There are three questions which are critical to this decision:
- Will public institutions (police, fire, medical) and utilities (water, heat) function in the immediate aftermath?
- Will shelter afford protection?
- Will supplies last until the end of the crisis/event?
If the answer to any single one of these questions is no, then the choice must be flight. To use the previous example, Tom Cruise’s character realizes that it is unlikely that any public institutions would function in the face of what he witnessed. He saw firsthand that shelter would not protect people. The answer to the third question is unknown but judging by the contents of his fridge, it was highly unlikely. He chose flight.
To focus on the real world, however, take a look at the four apocalyptic scenarios discussed above:
- NO: Public institutions are simply not prepared to deal with a nuclear detonation in the immediate vicinity. Any electromagnetic pulse (EMP) will also disable much if not all utilities.
- NO: Access to a shelter with the ability to shield radiation and provide a complex air filtration system is extremely unlikely.
- NO: Food and water will face the same radioactive contamination as everything else so having a lot of it, will not make a difference.
- YES: Public institutions are trained to deal with epidemics; however, as time goes on, their effectiveness will diminish. Utilities will also function.
- YES: Staying away from population concentrations, especially in an airborne contagion scenario will afford protection.
- MAYBE: In a highly virulent pandemic, going to the grocery store is ill-advised so this analysis will be critical.
- YES: First responders, especially Fire Departments, are trained for exactly this kind of scenario. Utilities should be unaffected as well.
- NO: Generally, the same concerns for radiation are applicable here. Without air filtration or an overpressure system, most shelters are not going to offer protection.
- YES: Even weapon-grade chemicals do not last very long in the open.
- MAYBE: Hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis, and tornadoes all have devastating effects on public services and utilities. In this case, it will be a question of severity.
- MAYBE: Longer natural events such as floods and hurricanes will require taking shelter, however, an earthquake may demand otherwise both during and after the event.
- MAYBE: Food and water may be contaminated. Electricity will likely be gone and perishable food will spoil.
Once the choice of flight is made, it must be acted on immediately; there can be no hesitation. Imagine watching a sporting event in a stadium. Everyone stays until the game ends and the clock hits 0:00 or the last pitch is thrown. How much time does it take before everyone is sitting in the parking lot waiting for the traffic to slowly disperse? Hesitation to evacuate an urban or semi-urban environment will result in no evacuation. Consider Houston, 2005 before hurricane Rita:
…in the event of a mass evacuation, most people are not going to successfully exit the affected area on anything larger than two wheels.
“With more than 2.5 million people trying to evacuate Houston before the hit of Hurricane Rita in 2005, traffic jams extended up to 100 miles long on the official evacuation route of Interstate 45. In the largest evacuation in United States history, three million people flooded the freeways, starting on September 21, 2005. 48 hours later, many were stranded in the gridlock, where they'd sit for up to 24 hours during the nearly 300-mile trek from Galveston to Dallas.
Police officers patrolled the highways, carrying gasoline to help the evacuees get out of the city, while tow trucks tried to move along the shoulders, pulling stalled cars out of the way. When traffic came to standstills, drivers got out of their cars and played catch, stood next to their cars, videotaped the scene or walked between vehicles and chatting with people along the way. Some even laid down for naps in parking lots.”
Ariel Kana “The 7 Longest Traffic Jams in History”
Now imagine a nuclear detonation instead of a hurricane. A car provides virtually no protection against radiation. Analysis after Sept 11, 2001, showed how woefully unprepared America was for a mass evacuation.
There are many images from Sept. 11, 2001, but other than the attacks themselves none was as scary as the daylong traffic jam in Washington, D.C. that horrible day.
No one could get out of the nation’s capital as the roads were clogged all day long, and sadly there still remains no workable evacuation plan for Washington 10 years later.
Last month a wimpy earthquake by California standards stuck the MidAtlantic and in Washington the roads to Maryland and Virginia were clogged for hours after the ground shook for five seconds.
When reporters inquired about the traffic jams after the earthquake and asked “What if?” questions, local and federal authorities revealed plans that called for pitching giant canvas tents in the event of another spectacular attack or incident.
Does canvas deflect radiation, biology or chemistry?
New York City is in the same boat.
Kenneth R. Bazinet “9-11 Aftermath: No DC Evacuation Plans”
Unfortunately, official literature on evacuation and preparedness are silent on mobilization timelines and the ensuing gridlock. Sadly, in a natural disaster where shelter will often provide protection, this is acceptable, but in an event such as a nuclear or chemical Localized Apocalyptic Scenario (LAS), proximity to ground zero means severely reduced survivability.
While on a macro level, this is a massive problem, for the individual the concern is less academic and more practical: “How long do I have before I am trapped?” Studies suggest that the first vehicles will reach major evacuation arteries (usually highways) within the first 2min 23s. Historical analysis of previous events shows that mobilization times for a population that understands the danger can be as much as 90% in the first 30 minutes. (See figure 1)
Most cities and states do have a contingency plan for mass evacuations. It’s called contraflow. The state enables both sides of the highway to go in one direction. A three lane highway would essentially become a six lane highway. While it sounds great in theory, the reality is that it cannot help in an event with little or no warning that requires the immediate evacuation of a populace.
Modeling is useful for pre-event planning, training, and exercising purposes, but it offers no assistance in the real-time management of an no-notice event. By the time the modeling determines which strategy to use to manage traffic, it is usually too late to make the changes to the streets, as the population in the affected area is likely to begin to move immediately. Setting up barricades to create contraflow, block freeway exits, or create emergency vehicle-only lanes requires pre-planning and notice to be successful.
(MTI Report 11-12, May 2012)
…the choice of fight or flight for a given event should be made long before it ever happens.
Take a real world example of contraflow in practice:
Mayor White of Houston expressed concern that the employment of contraflow “was not in state plans and took almost 12 hours to implement by the relevant agencies.” Employing contraflow had been considered only in the plans for evacuating Interstate 37 between Corpus Christi and San Antonio. Plans to utilize contraflow on busier highways, such as Interstate 10 in Houston, originally were ruled out because of the logistical problems and manpower needed to employ such a tactic. Additionally, studies conducted prior to the 2004 hurricane season indicated that the expected traffic surge could be handled on existing roads. Those forecasts, however, did not take into account that many more people would feel compelled to evacuate after witnessing the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina less than a month earlier, especially the problems faced by residents of New Orleans and other stricken areas who had failed to leave early enough. TxDOT estimates that in converting the contraflow lanes, it had to barricade 130 entrance and exit ramps to prevent head-on collisions, and many of those ramps had to be guarded by police or other officials to ensure drivers did not circumvent the barriers.
(Texas House Research Organization, 79-2, Feb 2006)
Contraflow simply is not going to work in a LAS where everyone is trying to evacuate not just a city, but possibly an entire region.
Unfortunately, the moral conflict of trying to evacuate in order to avoid being trapped with the rest of the population is needlessly philosophical when it comes to the survival of one’s own family. The longer it takes to make a decision to evacuate, the exponentially greater chance that evacuation becomes impossible. Preparation and planning ahead of time is the only way to ensure quick decision making and execution. Leave the philosophical discussions for a time when everyone is alive to discuss them.
A ‘go-bag’ must …contain everything needed for the next 48-64 hours. Food, water, medical kit, and any special medications are a bare minimum.
Within 30 seconds of the event, the decision of fight or flight must be made. This shouldn’t so much be an analysis of the current situation, but more of an assignment of the current event to a preexisting decision tree. In laymen’s terms, the choice of fight or flight for a given event should be made long before it ever happens.
A successful evacuation will depend on several things:
- Family consolidation
Most schools have some protocol for an evacuation, but like any other decision made by public officials, it will take time to make that decision. This window must be exploited to secure loved ones who may be in school at the time of an event. Unless predetermined, the very first decision must be to decide which guardian is securing the children. There may very well be a scenario where one guardian must evacuate on their own because there simply is not enough time to consolidate. This is ok. Speed is the most critical factor, so while one guardian picks up the children, the other can begin moving towards an agreed upon linkup point. This point should be well outside the LAS area. The freedom to move independently can mean the difference between life and death.
Even on ‘E’ the average care can still drive approximately 30 miles. When possible, a gas can should be kept as part of a preparation package. A 10 gallon gas can which is commonly kept in a garage to fuel a lawnmower will get most vehicles well on their way out of the area. Gas stations will become choke points so any opportunity to fuel a car quickly should be taken. Ideally, a vehicle should never be left below ¼ tank of fuel especially when work takes one away from the home where any fuel storage would be kept.
A ‘go-bag’ must be prepared ahead of time. Such a bag is designed to be quickly placed in whatever mode of transportation is available and will contain everything needed for the next 48-64 hours. Food, water, medical kit, and any special medications are a bare minimum. This go-bag must be designed to be individually carried if necessary, so only the essentials should be packed. Ideally, every member of the family would have their own go-bag. This ensures enough supplies and serves as a backup in the event that one is lost or must be abandoned.
Every state has their own laws regarding the carry of firearms and, some form of law regarding legally transporting them. If a state allows a carry permit, get one. If a state does not, find the applicable laws that allow for their transportation and set aside a firearm that can be transported with the family. In the aftermath of hurricane Sandy, numerous police reports of violence at gas stations showed just how quickly a normally civilized society can descend into anarchy, especially when its population feels threatened. An LAS will only magnify this. Be ready for those who have not prepared to try to take what they need by force. This point cannot be overstated especially when public institutions are unable to keep order.
This article only scratches the surface of preparation for a Localized Apocalyptic Scenario. It is designed, however, to get the thought process away from the bunker mentality and towards the decisions that will realistically need to be made and made quickly during an apocalyptic event. Unfortunately, the unthinkable has more recently become a reality or at least a potentiality. Ignoring it will not make it go away.