Experts Say Nuclear Attack Preparation Is Lacking

Feb 14, 2018
Originally published on February 14, 2018 8:16 am
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When Hawaii received an alert last month of an incoming missile, many people wondered what to do if they got a warning like that. The alert in Hawaii was a false alarm, but in the case of a real alert with a nuclear weapon on the way, what then? And, have state and local emergency managers thought through the best ways to prepare? Some experts say the answer is a resounding no. Here's NPR's Eric Westervelt.

ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: Retired colonel and former senior State Department official Stephen Ganyard says right now if there's a nuclear strike, you're pretty much on your own. There's almost no modern civil defense infrastructure left.

STEPHEN GANYARD: We put too much emphasis on notification and not on informing, response and recoveries. So the goal of civil defense really is not to tell people they're going to die. It's to tell them what they need to do to not die.

WESTERVELT: Ganyard, an ABC News contributor who worked on civil defense issues in the Marine Corps, says we can do better than do-it-yourself. He's not calling for a return to duck-and-cover drills, but he says a kind of checklist-preparedness complacency has crept into federal and state emergency planners when it comes to nuclear threats.

GANYARD: Many state and local governments just want to put the check in the box so that they make sure that they get their federal funding and say here's our plan. But they've never had the chance to really walk through that plan, to work it.

WESTERVELT: He argues that emergency officials need to do much more than the occasional tabletop exercise and work on creating robust civil defense plans for the 21st century.

GANYARD: With a little bit of innovation and imagination, we could have a civil defense that is far better than anything we ever had with the Cold War and could save a lot of lives.

WESTERVELT: Dr. Jane Orient agrees. She says states should be carefully reviewing plans in ways that expose the weaknesses in civil defense, evacuation routes, radiological implications and how to protect water, fuel, power and communications systems. But she says they're not.

JANE ORIENT: There is no robust nationwide fallout monitoring system. They have no plan to survey buildings for it and stock potential shelters.

WESTERVELT: Some might think, if the nukes are flying, aren't we all goners? But Orient, who founded the conservative advocacy group Doctors for Disaster Preparedness, argues that's just not the case, that a limited attack such as one from North Korea is survivable outside of ground zero if people know what to do. She says states need to start with simple things such as telling people outside of the blast zone, get inside and stay inside. In Hawaii, during the recent false alert about an incoming missile, some people hit the road. Mistake, she says. Staying inside a few days after a blast could be the difference between life and death.

ORIENT: Driving around the car is really bad. Being out in the open is not good. Millions of lives could be saved if people just didn't panic, if they knew the first things about what to do.

WESTERVELT: That's the question, it seems, state planners are still figuring out, and some emergency officials say the call to return to almost Cold War-era levels of preparedness and planning is misplaced and alarmist. It's still the big one, not North Korean nukes, that keep Mark Ghilarducci awake at night. He directs California's Office of Emergency Services.

MARK GHILARDUCCI: We are overdue for a big earthquake. It will happen. I am far more concerned, and it's a much higher level of priority than an ICBM. Doesn't mean that ICBM's not on my list, but, on a hierarchy of things, it's definitely earthquakes.

WESTERVELT: In the last few months, Ghilarducci has seen his teams respond to devastating historic wildfires and mudslides in the nation's most populous state so the fact that a nuclear strike is on his planning list at all is telling. The whole debate, he says, is a good opportunity to remind everyone they need to actually be prepared, with a family plan, with supplies for any emergency.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.