On TV: Day After Disaster

Last night, I had the displeasure of watching the History Channel show “Day After Disaster.” I say displeasure only because of the depressing material that was covered- the aftermath of a nuclear terrorist attack on a major U.S. city. “Day After Disaster,” which was released in 2009, offered a look into the U.S. government’s plan to save the country after a nuclear 9/11.

The detonation of a nuclear device in an American city is one of the top threat scenarios facing the United States today. Just last week I blogged about new guidelines from the federal government in response to a nuclear attack. And it’s a threat that came to mind when I was putting Survival And Prosperity together. From the “About” page:

“This debate asks how likely is it that terrorists will explode a nuclear bomb and devastate a great American metropolis. In the judgment of former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, the likelihood of a single nuclear bomb exploding in a single city is greater today than at the height of the Cold War. Nuclear Terrorism states my own judgment that, on the current trend line, the chances of a nuclear terrorist attack in the next decade are greater than 50 percent. Former Secretary of Defense William Perry has expressed his own view that Nuclear Terrorism underestimates the risk.

From the technical side, Richard Garwin, a designer of the hydrogen bomb who Enrico Fermi once called, ‘the only true genius I had ever met,’ told Congress in March that he estimated a ‘20 percent per year probability with American cities and European cities included’ of ‘a nuclear explosion—not just a contamination, dirty bomb—a nuclear explosion.’ My Harvard colleague Matthew Bunn has created a probability model in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science that estimates the probability of a nuclear terrorist attack over a ten-year period to be 29 percent—identical to the average estimate from a poll of security experts commissioned by Senator Richard Lugar in 2005.”

-Graham T. Allison, director of Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and author of Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, in an April 2007 debate

As the show focused primarily on the aftermath of a nuclear strike, the “Day After Disaster” highlighted two documents at the core of the government’s response. The National Response Framework, the nation’s comprehensive plan for responding and surviving any attack, was released by the Department of Homeland Security in January 2008. From the introduction of the 90-page document:

This National Response Framework (NRF) [or Framework] is a guide to how the Nation conducts all-hazards response. It is built upon scalable, flexible, and adaptable coordinating structures to align key roles and responsibilities across the Nation. It describes specific authorities and best practices for managing incidents that range from the serious but purely local, to large-scale terrorist attacks or catastrophic natural disasters.

In addition, in 2009 an unpublished 92-page document was distributed that included National Planning Scenario #1: Nuclear Detonation. The federal interagency community developed a number of all-hazards planning scenarios for use in government homeland security preparedness activities. The scenarios are planning tools and are representative of the range of potential terrorist attacks and natural disasters and the related impacts that face the nation. According to the latest intelligence, a scenario involving the detonation of a nuclear device on U.S. soil would most likely consist of the following:

• Ground-zero would be Washington, D.C.
• A 10-kiloton gun-type improvised nuclear device (IND) would be detonated by a terrorist
• The delivery vehicle would most likely be a delivery van
• The attack would take place on a weekday morning
• Hundreds of thousands of Americans would be killed
• The damage will amount to hundreds of billions of dollars
• The entire leadership of the U.S. government would be wiped out (worst-case scenario)

In the “Day After Disaster,” an attack on the nation’s capital would result in:

• Everything 1/3 of a mile from ground zero would be vaporized
• 5,000 people would die instantly
• The detonation would be followed by an intense flash of light
• Another 10,000 people would die in seconds
• 15,000 more would be injured
• Anyone .6 miles to 1 mile from ground zero survives the thermal pulse- but not for long
• 15 seconds after detonation, 30,000 would be dead or injured
• At the White House,1.39 miles from ground zero, the damage would be severe
• The streets/highways would be clogged with blinded drivers
• 2,400 would experience temporary flash blindness
• 1,000 would be permanently blinded, retinas seared
• A 10-kiloton blast would generate an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that spans 3 miles, causing planes to crash, cars to die, and cell phone towers to go dead

“Day After Disaster”
YouTube Video Link

According to the History Channel show, 3 major challenges would exist after the detonation of a nuclear device in Washington:

1. Rescue the U.S. president- or his/her next living successor
2. Rescue survivors near ground zero
3. Determine the existence of a second nuclear weapon, and locate the weapon before it’s too late

The program goes on to discuss the above, along with other pressing concerns, in more detail. Once again, another show that might just keep you awake at night. But highly-informative, especially the parts that concerned ordinary citizens like you and me. This included:

• There are a couple of things people can do to maximize their chances of living through the catastrophe if they survive the initial blast:

1. Don’t look in the direction of the initial flash of light (equivalent to 1 million suns), or else you might suffer temporary or permanent flash blindness
2. Keep your mouth open directly after detonation. This allows pressure on both sides of ear drums to equalize. If your mouth is closed, all the pressure is going internally, and might burst your eardrums.
3. After the initial blast, keep your mouth closed (protected if possible) to filter radioactive materials from getting into lungs

• The greatest risk of fallout is early on after detonation
• Many lives can be saved by simply sheltering-in-place. If the radioactive plume is headed in your direction, you have 10 to 20 minutes to leave your car and get inside a building where you’re protected as much as possible, either in a basement or center-core of the structure
• Being in a car when the fallout arrives is bad, but not as bad as being out in the open
• Don’t attempt to pick up the kids from school (you might get stuck in your car- see above). Children should shelter-in-place at the school, and parents should do the same at their location
• If there is a nuclear detonation in your city, you cannot count on emergency personnel getting anywhere near you for an extended period of time
• Government will order precautionary mass evacuations in other major cities. As Dr. Matthew Bunn from Harvard’s Belfer Center Managing The Atom Project said:

For one thing, I am sure that, either those who carried out the attack or someone else, would call up and say, we’ve got 5 more nuclear bombs, or we’ve got 10 more nuclear bombs, and they’re already hidden in America, and we’re going to start setting them off unless you do what we want. And they would make that threat public, and people would start fleeing the major cities. With one bomb already having gone off, who could be confident that that wasn’t true? The potential for chaos is immense in this type of situation.

• There is a plan in place for continuity-of-government (COG) to keep democracy intact, but martial law can’t be ruled out

Unfortunately, “Day After Disaster” cannot be viewed for free on the History Channel website. However, they do broadcast it from time to time and it’s available here for purchase.

(Editor’s note: Link to National Response Framework placed on “Resources” page)


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9 Comments to On TV: Day After Disaster

  1. One of the most interesting history channel shows I have ever watched. Very informative. Should be played in all public high schools.

  2. Tyler on April 6th, 2011
  3. Thanks for the comment Tyler. I agree- Day After Disaster is incredibly interesting and informative. A nice complement to the show is the SPIKE Surviving Disaster episode “Nuclear Attack.” From the website:

    A nuclear bomb has been detonated on American soil. Navy SEAL Cade Courtly shows you what to do in the first 20 minutes of detonation in order to survive.

    The full episode can be viewed on the SPIKE site here.

  4. Editor on April 6th, 2011
  5. This show is most deff the most interesting show. I just heard about EMP and Nuclear Attacks a few weeks ago. But when I heard about it all, I started researching, watching that show! and really getting into learning about it. I came across this one really interesting radio blog. It’s actually on the internet. They always have new guests on it that really know what they’re talking about and are very informational. The show is every Wednesday. You should check it out, I think you would find it interesting, too: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/ — This week a guy named Tom Popik is going to be on it. He’s a principal author of a petition to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He knows a lot about Nuclear Attacks and different stuff having to do with EMP I’ve heard!!

  6. AmandaK on June 6th, 2011
  7. Thanks for sharing that info and link AmandaK. I’ll have to listen in sometime!

  8. Editor on June 6th, 2011
  9. No problem!! Did you take a listen?? I thought it was a really great show. I always feel like my brain is a sponge when I listen to it, cause it’s so insightful! Anyways, if you didn’t listen to that show, or you did and you loved it as much as I do, I know that Clare Lopez is going to be a returning guest tomorrow. Let me know if you listen in on the show and what you think:)


  10. AmandaK on June 14th, 2011
  11. Thanks AmandaK. I intend to listen to EMPact Radio in the next couple of days and will let you know what I think of it here.

  12. Editor on June 23rd, 2011
  13. If you are in the fallout area, forget survival and make yourself and your loved ones as comfortable as possible with pain killers and await death. Drink but dont eat to accelerate death. Kill yourself if possible.
    You just will not survive and no one will help you.
    Better to have a controlled death than to suffer horribly while trying an impossible fleeing.
    Face facts and work to never be a part of a population so deservedly hated to spark such an attack.

  14. david khnom on March 27th, 2012
  15. One thing this documentary never mentioned is that a nuclear
    bomb would most likely create a firestorm–individual fires
    started by the thermal pulse would coalesce into one huge
    mass fire which would trap everyone inside the fire area and
    use up all of the available oxygen in the fire area
    suffocating everyone trapped in the fire area–if they were
    not roasted alive first. This happened in Hiroshima, the
    first city ever hit with a nuclear bomb.

  16. Daniel Rosenthal on November 2nd, 2014
  17. Thanks for sharing that Daniel. Whenever I hear of firestorms in this context I think of the bombing of Cologne, Germany, during World War 2.

  18. Editor on November 3rd, 2014
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