A Disaster Professional’s Nightmare Scenarios

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nightmare scenarios

I have to admit that I’ve been resisting 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, The Survival Mom herself, is persistent and she finally talked me into revealing my ultimate nightmare scenario.

Jim Acosta's DMAT team logo
Jim Acosta’s DMAT team logo

Why me? I currently work for a large state’s emergency services office, in a very large metropolitan area. I’m being a little cagey about exactly who I work for because I’m speaking here for me and not for my employer; I’ve worked in one aspect of the emergency services field or another for over 30 years. I still drive a car with red lights and siren at work every day, but most of my work is behind-the-scenes, supporting local governments that are experiencing a disaster and helping them plan for disasters in calmer times.

Influence of Hurricane Katrina

It’s been 10 years since Katrina devastated the Gulf coasts of Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi; like many in my field, I had the privilege of responding to the aftermath and helping our fellow Americans who were in need. While the more recent experiences with “super storm” Sandy have 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 was able to drive the deserted downtown streets of New Orleans, the lower ninth Ward, and the Port area without seeing anyone on the street. With the exception of the tragedy at the convention center and other areas where survivors were not able or willing to evacuate prior to 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, but our only customers were other first responders who were assigned to get New Orleans back on its feet.

The Shakeout Scenario

In 2008 I was fortunate enough to be involved in the writing of 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.

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

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 will be repaired, food and water will be brought to the area, and survivors will be rescued and medically treated. In all, it is a fairly comprehensive roadmap for responders to follow to assist the affected communities.

But as the years have gone by, I have been able to integrate my prior disaster experiences with the framework within the Cat Plan. Unlike Katrina (and Sandy), there would be no significant warning of such a large earthquake, and therefore there would be no evacuation of the population possible. In a matter of minutes, millions of people would be cut off from food, water, communications, and transportation; and suddenly the New Orleans Convention Center becomes 1000 Convention Centers, spread over hundreds of square miles.

The only thing that will not be in short supply are news crews, filling the 24-hour news cycle with the death, destruction, and human misery that will result. Cascading effects, where for example the loss of electrical power also causes the loss of communications and water system capabilities, create huge obstacles to keeping survivors healthy and making progress on recovery.

Just as the California drought has demonstrated the folly of bringing water from hundreds of miles away to keep millions of water hungry lawns healthy, I believe the human need will greatly outstrip governments’ ability to maintain a population of millions in the midst of a catastrophic disaster zone. This is my nightmare: Millions of my fellow Americans reduced to the status of war zone refugee, the strong overpowering the weak in a daily competition for necessities.

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. Civilization is a fragile thing.

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 very real 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 both roadway and air would paralyze our society.

Nuclear Detonation

Nuclear detonation-Jim Acosta
Nuclear detonation-Jim Acosta

Next in my nightmare scenario list is the detonation of an improvised nuclear device in the United States. In the immediate vicinity of the blast, damage is similar to an earthquake, but with the additional problems of radioactive fallout and associated health effects.

While a significant number of blast survivors may experience radiation-related health effects, many times that number (“the worried well”) will seek medical attention due to 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 recent movies, the impact of a meteor in a populated area of the United States would easily be a catastrophic event. 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.

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 would greatly simplify providing them sufficient care and shelter.

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

My advice to the non-professional is to keep doing what you’re doing in terms of your preparedness, but if you’re locked into the idea that three days of supplies will get you through a disaster you’re wasting your time. In a truly catastrophic incident, you will want to have at least two weeks of supplies, and if you can swing it, three weeks is even better. Also, have a plan to take your supplies with you if you are forced to evacuate. Remember, civilization is fragile.

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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 “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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