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.
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.
Table of contents
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Latest posts by Jim Acosta (see all)
- You Think You’re Scared? Here are a Disaster Professional’s Nightmare Scenarios - November 2, 2022
- When Squatters Move In: How to Take Back Your Home From Intruders - September 18, 2022
- Ponds as Emergency Water Sources: What You Need to Know - May 15, 2022
- Wildfire Season: Harden your Home to Survive a Firestorm - September 8, 2017
- 20 Survival Principles From the Classic Book, Lucifer’s Hammer - January 19, 2017