Breezy Emergency Agency Video Host: "So There's Just Been a Nuclear Attack..."
Building on a rather out-of-the-blue video public-service announcement from New York City's Emergency Management Office, here are some things to ponder and do about worst-case preparedness.
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My older son, knowing my focus on risk and response at every scale, pinged me a link to a video posted on July 11 by the New York City Department of Emergency Management - on what to do in a nuclear attack.
That's quite a way to start a week.
It begins with dark music, distant sirens and a slow pan of a brownstone block. Then a superimposed narrator appears and says, "So there's been a nuclear attack.... Don't ask me why. Just know that the big one has hit."
Watch the full video via nyc.gov/readyny
The message that follows is clear and simple and draws directly on federal guidance for such an event established over the last decade: Get inside. Stay inside. Stay tuned.
The advice pretty much parallels content in a video the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted in March, as it happens just days after Russian president Vladimir Putin ordered the calamitous invasion of Ukraine.
That CDC video, on how to say safe during a radiation emergency, has more detail, and was shaped specifically to clarify that "sheltering in place" facing fallout is very different than what people were told to do in the pandemic.
The CDC has more radiation tips here and also has a website of FAQs About a Nuclear Blast, although I can't read that without thinking these are not frequently asked questions. For instance, when was the last time you asked, "How can I protect my family and myself during a nuclear blast?"
The list of answers is much longer
And the style of the CDC video animation is anodyne apocalypse - The Lego Movie meets Doctor Strangelove.
Why is NYC offering nuclear attack advice now?
In a summer with New York City (and other metropolises) focusing on preparedness for extreme heat, flash flooding (Rainfall Ready), hurricanes (Know Your Zone) and other more conventional hazards, this public service announcement came a bit out of the blue even with Vladimir Putin's still-simmering nuclear threats.
I reached out to Allison Pennisi, the emergency management executive director for public information, with a couple of questions, mainly, was there any development or new information in particular that prompted this PSA now?
She didn't mention any new intelligence or the like, instead describing this release as just another effort to cover all the bases:
It’s our mission to educate the public on how to be prepared for natural and manmade hazards, especially as the threat landscape evolves. The likelihood of a nuclear weapon incident occurring in/near New York City is very low. However, it's important New Yorkers know the steps to stay safe.
The PSA is designed to provide New Yorkers with quick, easy steps to take should an event like this occur. We have other resources that provide more information, including our PlanNowNYC website and NYC Emergency Management webpage. Since community engagement is one of the pillars of our mission, we conduct outreach across all five boroughs throughout the year to inform New York City communities about how to be prepared for emergencies and the steps to do so.
I'm glad the city released the video. It's important to play out every possible eventuality. Such moments help all of us, amid the daily flow, occasionally to ponder and, to a tiny extent at least, prepare for the unthinkable.
One beneficial action, experts say, is taking a moment to think about how you think, and feel, when confronted with threats at various scales. A great guide on this is Michele Wucker, the author of You Are What You Risk - The New Art and Science of Navigating an Uncertain World. I've featured Wucker on several of my Sustain What webcasts because she's great at prompting people, me included, to assess not only hazards out there in the world but the inner landscape that determines what we do and how we engage with others. Read this adapted excerpt from her book to get the idea: "What goes into your risk fingerprint?"
A deeper dive
The New York video was a good conversation starter, as social media illustrates tonight. But I thought the package could have benefitted from additional links to the vast array of resources and deeper guidance built over the years by several federal agencies and assessed by independent experts. I've added some below for those who want to dig deeper.
The Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education of the Department of Energy in 2011 conducted a study with focus groups of existing messaging related to responsiveness should an improvised nuclear device - the nuclear threat of the post-9/11 decade - be detonated. The results were not encouraging and that report helped generate substantial revisions
The Federal Emergency Management Agency, drawing on the Oak Ridge findings and lots more, issued updated guidance in May: "Planning Guidance for Response to a Nuclear Detonation." The main difference? The new guidance is for much larger detonations. The era of the suitcase bomb is history.
FEMA has one online asset that I find a bit weak: a primer on nuclear weapon explosions, called Nuclear Blast on its otherwise invaluable Ready.gov website.
My problem? No matter how much I read about this low-probability eventuality, I don't think I'll ever be truly ready, will you?
Just seeing the words "Ready" and "Nuclear Explosion" in the same artwork makes me as unready as I'll ever be for anything.
How about a shelter map?
There's one thing I can't find online. A simple app or map showing America's fallout or bomb shelters. Maybe they're all museum pieces by now? Or maybe it's because there's fear that making these facilities common knowledge might spark panic if and when the worst happens. I will note that the famed disaster-behavior expert Denis Mileti, drawing on decades of research, long insisted that people don't panic (except in disaster movies). It's a disaster for us all that he was taken by COVID-19 in January of 2021.
In Ukraine or South Korea, bomb shelters are unremarkable and essential features of any urban landscape. The City of Kiev helpfully maps its shelters.
In the United States, again perhaps because we've been lulled so long since I was a kid and we did frequent shelter drills, if you plunk "fallout shelter" or "bomb shelter" into Google Maps, you get basically nada.
Students in Brooklyn in a "take cover" drill in 1962 (Library of Congress)
A straight Google search of "bomb shelter map active" mainly generates a remarkable list of such maps and related tips posted by survivalists, including one from, yes, Survivalist Gear on "Fallout Shelters Near me" - which basically bundles a batch of fairly useless links including the Wikipedia list of caves in the United States.
Obviously, and thankfully, we are not (yet) as directly vulnerable to attack as Ukrainians or South Koreans. But I think there's much more than can be done in the communication space between the efforts of Survivalist Gear and those so far of New York City and federal agencies.
Why this all matters
Why does this matter beyond being something to chuckle about on social media?
Any lulling effect from the longstanding theory of "mutually assured destruction" along with the end of the old-style Cold War in 1991 is fast fading.
In a new piece in Foreign Policy (paywalled sadly), Nina Tannenwald, a Brown University senior lecturer in political science and author of The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Nonuse of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945, writes:
"The Russia-Ukraine war serves as a harsh reminder of some old truths about nuclear weapons: There are limits to the protection nuclear deterrence provides. (Usable conventional weapons may get you more protection.) In a crisis, deterrence is vulnerable, not automatic and self-enforcing. There is always the chance that it could fail."
Deterrence is vulnerable because, as Sharon Burke, a former assistant secretary of defense told me on a Sustain What webcast in the first days after the invasion, "It's very difficult to retaliate when you don't want to escalate."
Have a good evening.
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