You Think You’re Scared? Here are a Disaster Professional’s Nightmare Scenarios

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I have to admit that I resisted writing this article. Maybe it’s that superstition that says if you can think about it and describe it, it’s more likely to happen. But my friend Lisa Bedford, The Survival Mom herself, is persistent, and she finally talked me into revealing my ultimate nightmare scenario.

Why me?

I currently work for a large state’s emergency services office in a huge metropolitan area. I’m being a little cagey about who I work for because I’m speaking here for myself and not for my employer.

image: in a nightmare scenario, a meteor heads toward earth

How I Chose My Nightmare Scenarios

I’ve worked in one aspect or another of the emergency services field for over 30 years. I still drive a car with red lights and sirens at work every day, but most of my work is behind the scenes, supporting local governments that are experiencing a disaster and, in calmer times, helping them plan for disasters.

As a professional, I have reflected on other scenarios that would result in similar catastrophic effects, some with prior warning, like a hurricane, and some with no warning, like an earthquake; I’ll cover a few in this article.

Civilization is a fragile thing.

Hurricane Katrina

When Katrina devastated the Gulf coasts of Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, I, like many in my field, had the privilege of responding to the aftermath and helping our fellow Americans in need. Although “super storm” Sandy caused us to adjust our emergency response procedures, Katrina remains the benchmark for a catastrophic disaster in the United States.

Katrina was unique to me because two weeks after the flooding, I drove through the deserted downtown streets of New Orleans, the lower ninth Ward, and the Port area without seeing anyone on the street. Except for the tragedy at the convention center and other areas where survivors were not able or willing to evacuate before the storm and flooding, everyone else was gone.

My federal Disaster Medical Assistance Team was assigned to rehab and reopen the emergency room at the Kindred Hospital in downtown. Still, our only customers were other first responders assigned to get New Orleans back on its feet.

Southern California’s ‘The Shakeout Scenario’

In 2008 I was fortunate enough to be involved in writing the Southern California Catastrophic Earthquake Plan, or “Cat Plan.” The United States Geological Survey had spent the better part of two years assembling experts in many fields, including engineering, police and fire, social services, and economics, and asked them to calculate the effects of a Magnitude 7.8 earthquake in Southern California.

The Shakeout Scenario resulted in over 700 pages describing the catastrophic results of this earthquake affecting seven counties and 20 million people in Southern California. The predicted mayhem so profoundly moved me in this document I wrote a book to help my family and friends understand the threat and prepare to survive this type of earthquake.

Here’s some of what I learned.

The Devil Is in the Details

The Cat Plan describes what actions the state and federal governments will take in response to such a powerful earthquake:

  • Utilities repaired
  • Food and water brought to the area
  • Survivors rescued and medically treated

In all, it is a reasonably comprehensive roadmap for responders to follow to assist the affected communities.

The Shift in My Thinking

However, as the years have gone by, I’ve integrated my prior disaster experiences with the framework within the Cat Plan, and a distinction has emerged. Unlike Katrina and Sandy (and most recently, Ian), there would be no significant warning of such a large earthquake, and therefore no evacuation of the population is possible.

In a matter of minutes, millions of people would be cut off from food, water, communications, and transportation. Suddenly the New Orleans Convention Center becomes 1000 Convention Centers, spread over hundreds of square miles.

Additionally, cascading effects will occur, such as the loss of electrical power also causing the loss of communications and water system capabilities. Not only does this create considerable obstacles to recovery progress, it creates immense challenges for sanitation and hygiene, which are critical to keeping survivors healthy.

The only thing that won’t be in short supply is news crews, filling the 24-hour news cycle with the death, destruction, and human misery that will result.

Just as the California drought has demonstrated the folly of bringing water from hundreds of miles away to keep millions of water-hungry lawns lush and green, the human need will significantly outstrip governments’ ability to maintain a population of millions amid a catastrophic disaster zone.

This is my ultimate nightmare scenario: Millions of my fellow Americans reduced to the status of war zone refugees and the strong overpowering the weak in a daily competition for necessities.

Electromagnetic Pulse

An electromagnetic pulse is no longer just a fantasy of the paranoid. With the proliferation of nuclear weapons among many countries, the ability of an enemy state or non-state terrorist group to inflict an electromagnetic pulse on at least part of the United States is a genuine threat.

While not having the effect of collapsing buildings like an earthquake, damage to infrastructure in every aspect of our lives would be even more complete: Collapse of the electrical grid and interruption of control of the generation of power, pipelines, water systems, and traffic control systems for both road and air would paralyze our society.

Note from The Survival Mom: A Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) is another event that has the potential to take out the power grid. However, differences between the CME and the EMP mean that for a CME, there would be some warning and some electronic devices that survive.

Nuclear Detonation

Next in my nightmare scenario list is the detonation of an improvised nuclear device in the United States. Nuclear detonation is Scenario Uno in the National Planning Scenarios document developed by the United States Department of Homeland Security; there are 15 disaster scenarios in total.

In the immediate vicinity of a nuclear blast, the damage is similar to an earthquake but with the additional problems of radioactive fallout and associated health effects.

Many blast survivors may experience radiation-related health effects. However, many times that number (“the worried well”) will seek medical attention due to a lack of knowledge or misunderstanding of their risk. These people will overwhelm local health and medical systems, making it more difficult for those actually affected to get care.

Meteor Strike

It’s hard to beat “Extinction Level Event” for a cool-sounding catastrophe. A popular subject of movies, the impact of a meteor in a populated area of the United States would easily be catastrophic. In my opinion, the best description of the effects of an object striking the Earth and the aftermath is in the Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle novel Lucifer’s Hammer. Hint: It’s really, really bad.

On the bright side, NASA has successfully tested our first planetary defense system. DART, or Double Asteroid Redirection Test, deflects a comet or meteor away from Earth. I’ll take When Life Mimics Hollywood for $500, Alex.

The Good News

In my field of Emergency Management, we take all of these scenarios seriously, and there are often alternatives to what appear to be unsolvable problems.

For instance, rather than fighting a losing battle trying to keep a population of millions supplied in the middle of an earthquake zone, relocating a significant number of the survivors to an area unaffected by the earthquake greatly simplifies providing them adequate care and shelter.

Another strategy for keeping survivors supplied with food and other needs is prioritizing restoring power and other services to significant community businesses, such as supermarkets and big-box retailers. Not only do they have established logistics chains, but they also supply important economic support to the affected community. Think jobs, access to banking services, and other ancillary services such as serving as heating or cooling centers during periods of extreme weather.

The Final Word

My advice to the non-professional is to keep doing what you’re doing regarding your preparedness, but if you’re locked into the idea of three days of supplies getting you through a disaster, you’re wasting your time.

In a truly catastrophic incident, you need at least two weeks of supplies, and if you can swing it, three weeks or more is even better. The Survival Mom’s Fast Track Prepping course helps you get prepared in just three weeks. Just 21 days and you’ll have accomplished the survival basics: food, water, emergency kits, and a survival plan including how to prepare for evacuating! That’s fast!

Remember, civilization is fragile.

What is your ultimate nightmare scenario? How are you preparing for it?

Originally published March 2, 2016; updated by The Survival Mom editors.

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Jim Acosta

Jim has spent time as a volunteer firefighter, Emergency Medical Technician, and wildland fire hand crew member. He is currently a Certified Emergency Manager. In 2011, Jim authored “I Can Overcome That: The Practical Guide to Surviving the Next Big California Earthquake.”

8 thoughts on “You Think You’re Scared? Here are a Disaster Professional’s Nightmare Scenarios”

  1. Pingback: Prepper News Watch for March 2, 2016 | The Preparedness Podcast

  2. It’s nice to hear someone say that potentially some services will be available. Most of what one reads is closer to zombies wandering the earth and that hasn’t happened historically. Thank you.

  3. What I worry about in such a scenario is that .gov pukes will flood my area with “refugees” from somewhere like CA. The prevailing .gov thought process is that it’s best to drag everybody down to the same level. It would be foolish to think that they wouldn’t try to loot the new area. Be honest with yourself–The Katrina “refugees” destroyed everything they touched and ruined every area they fled to.

  4. Serious question, most people think I’m crazy when I talk about this to people outside of my few fb groups but how do you feel about planet x/nibiru? My husband and I have been prepping for whatever may happen for ourselves and our 3 young kids and lately in some of My groups people are talking more and more about planet x..I have read 2 books on it and just don’t know what to think. I don’t really know what my question is, just looking for anyone’s thoughts on the subject I guess 🙂

  5. Hi, I like your articles and your site. I am however trying to research which emergency foods use artificial good dyes. I found Augason farms uses them in some products, but Do you know of any others? Loads of people have allergies to artificial food dyes, so to find them in emergency foods is disheartening. It would be simple to leave those out. Thank you again for all the information you provide.

  6. three days (72 hour bug out kits) is a joke.Unless you are somewhere where is very hot or extremely cold, three days survival shouldnt be a problem (been there done that, even in hotter and colder climates).but which disaster has ended in three days? which govt agency was able to restore some infrastructure after three days of major disaster?
    Also why is 2 or 3 weeks worth of food so strange idea? I live on farm, we grow what we eat and buy only what we cant.And even when we had really lousy year, we still had enough food (bought of course) to get us through the year…Some can, some cant, but its not so hard to store for a month or two of food, its question if people will embrace that idea or not.

  7. David T. Garrison

    Good list, but I do disagree with labeling Katrina as a Catastrophe. Having spent weeks in LA after Katrina, and several weeks in Japan after the 3-11 Earthquake/Tsunami, Katrina was a Single Family Structure Fire. People need to have at least a week to 3 months of supplies, depending on where they live and the risks they face.

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