How to Take Shelter from a Ballistic Missile Threat

On Saturday, January 13, 2018, an official alert from Hawaii’s emergency management agency went out to thousands of people’s cell phones that read, “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

For 38 minutes, people scrambled to find shelter, many not having any idea what to do or where to go.

Though Hawaii has been testing its air raid sirens since December, residents of the Aloha state demonstrated they aren’t prepared for a nuclear attack.  I get it. As a country, we no longer panic over living in the Atomic Age—the days of “duck and cover” long over. We’re more prepared for natural disasters and focus our fears on terrorism rather than on nuclear war.

More countries have nuclear bombs now than they did during the Cold War. These bombs are also way more powerful. But years of treaties and peace between nuclear powers subdued our panic. The Asia-Pacific director of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning organization, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, Tim Wright says, “The risk of nuclear weapons being used is very high today—certainly as high as it was during the Cold War.”

Could North Korea Really Nuke Us?

In 2006, North Korea successfully conducted its first nuclear bomb. They succeeded in testing the second one in 2009 and in the fall of 2017, it was confirmed that the North Koreans had developed a ballistic missile that could reach the United States.

Since then, things have really heated up (pun intended) between North Korea and the U.S. Is it alarmist to be a little bit afraid now?

Black and white photo of a nuclear weapon test

86% of Americans are afraid of nuclear war.

Public Policy Polling, a pollster company, surveyed Americans this summer and found that 86% of us are afraid of nuclear war.

So why don’t we know how to react to a nuclear bomb attack?

Hawaii’s emergency preparedness literature states that citizens would have less than 20 minutes to seek shelter once a nuclear warhead’s path has been detected. If prepared, this should give you enough time to put your nuclear bomb plan into action.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says there are three factors to protecting yourself from a nuclear blast: distance, shielding and time. Hawaii is teaching residents to “Get Inside, Stay Inside and Stay Tuned.”

What is the Best Shelter?

A fully stocked concrete underground bunker is ideal; however, not readily available to most. So, seek shelter in whatever provides the most material to shield you from the bomb. You want to put as much dense material, like concrete, brick, or dirt between you and the fallout as possible. For must of us, this would realistically be a basement or a storm shelter.

If you are in a large office building or mall, proceed to the center of the building and hole-up in a room without windows.

According to Hawaiian Emergency Management Agency preparedness documentation, unfortunately, the worst place to shelter is a single-story wooden house, but since that is what so many of us have, you’re gonna need to make the most of it. Turn off the air and fans, move into an internal room without windows and outside doors. Cover doors and windows and seal air vents with plastic sheeting and duct tape. However, do not keep your room tightly sealed for more than a few hours to prevent suffocation.

What if You Can’t Find Shelter?

A car does not protect against radiation; however, it is a safer option than open air. If you are on the road and there are absolutely no buildings to hunker down in, stay in your car. Being stuck outside, away from any vehicle or indoor shelter is a terrifying thought. In this worst-case scenario, take cover behind something sturdy, cover your mouth and nose with any material you have, lay flat on the ground, cover your head and keep it down. Do not look at the blast. Depending on how far you are from ground zero, the shockwave can take up to 30 minutes to get to you. The danger isn’t over after the initial heat flash and shockwave. Radioactive nuclear fallout will follow. Find shelter as soon as possible after the bomb.

Man in vintage gas mask

If you can’t find shelter, get behind something sturdy, cover your mouth with anything you can and lay flat on the ground.

Once you have found shelter, you will need to remove the clothing you were wearing and shower. Removing the clothes you had on can remove up to 90% of radioactive material. Do not take the old clothes with you into the shelter. Seal them up in a plastic bag and keep them away from any people and pets. Shower with soap and water. Wipe your eyelids, eyelashes and ears with a wet cloth and blow your nose.

Stay Tuned

A NOAA-weather alert emergency radio will broadcast emergency messages. Authorities will let you know when it is safe to go back outside. Experts say this will generally be two weeks, depending on varying factors. But no matter, do not attempt to leave your shelter for at least 24 hours.

Prepare and Plan

It is a good idea to prepare a safe room inside your house or in the basement for this and other emergencies. Assume any disaster is going to knock out your power grid and utilities. Therefore, you aren’t going to have electricity to cook with or running water. Stock your safe room with drinking water, non-perishable food, plastic sheeting, duct tape, a first aid kit, sleeping bags and blankets, pillows, garbage bags, emergency radio, batteries, lights and essential medications.

Though this all sounds very doomsday, there is good news. Experts say with the right actions, you are likely to survive a nuclear bomb. The emergency management agency in Hawaii says that 90% of the population would “most likely” survive a ballistic missile attack. Dr. Irwin Redlener, head of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute says, “Step one is dispelling the myth that there’s nothing that can be done, that we’re all going to die. We’re talking about an entirely different kind of nuclear threat than we were during the Cold War, and your personal survival can be enhanced if you follow basic rules for how and when you should shelter, and for how long.”

Are you afraid of nuclear war? How are you preparing? Tell us in the comment section below.
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