How To Survive An Actual Nuclear Missile Attack

It's good to be prepared.

On Saturday, more than a million residents and visitors in Hawaii received a shocking alert on their cell phones warning that a "ballistic missile" was inbound, sparking widespread fear and panic.

Michelle Broder Van Dyke / BuzzFeed News / Via BuzzFeed News

The alert turned out to be false, but it wasn't corrected for nearly 40 minutes, and came amid rising tensions with North Korea.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has launched at least 10 missile tests since President Donald Trump took office, including the country's first successful intercontinental ballistic missile test last summer.

Pyongyang has claimed that it could carry a nuclear warhead, but it has not actually demonstrated the capability of having the payload survive re-entry into Earth's atmosphere, according to a Hawaii Department of Defense official who spoke with BuzzFeed News.

In September, North Korea did detonate a nuclear test, which showed that they may be able to produce a weapon in the range of about 100 kilotons, the defense official said.

In Hawaii, there's little defense against a missile attack, as the state does not have its own interceptors. Instead, they are located in Alaska and California and have been used to successfully shoot down test versions of North Korean missiles.

Hawaii launched a preparedness plan last year for what people should do in case North Korea does fire a missile at the state. In December, officials restarted statewide testing of Cold War–era sirens meant to warn of a nuclear attack.

US Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii said after the false alert was sent that it "terrified residents and visitors, and it undermined our ability to notify the public in a real emergency."

Olivia Griffin, an 18-year-old student at the University of Hawaii, described to BuzzFeed News in an interview on Sunday a scene of chaos around the dorms on campus after the alert was sent, with students running to concrete classrooms.

"I just sprinted and was calling my parents and I really didn't know what to do," Griffin said about the moment after she got the alert. "The building I ran to was actually locked."

"When I first got there, there were guys just trying to break down the door," Griffin said. "We ran somewhere else, but nothing was open. Finally, one of the professors came and opened a door and everyone just sprinted in."

In a worst-case scenario, a single 150-kiloton nuclear weapon detonated over Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu could potentially kill 18,000 people immediately and leave 50,000 to 120,000 others injured across a six-mile diameter, according to a Hawaii Department of Defense official who spoke with BuzzFeed News.

About 950,000 people live on Oahu and another 220,000 visitors are on the island on any given day, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

It's not known if North Korea can accurately target a specific location, and a realistic scenario would likely cause fewer deaths.

In Hiroshima, where the US detonated a 15-kiloton nuclear weapon in 1945, as many people, if not more, died from radiation sickness as from the initial blast.

Even in the worst-case scenario, more than 90% of people on the island would likely reside outside of the zone directly impacted by the bomb.

Michelle Broder Van Dyke / BuzzFeed News

If North Korea is able to successfully launch a long-range missile with a nuclear warhead, which experts are still skeptical the reclusive nation is capable of, hundreds of thousands of survivors could be sickened by radioactive fallout.

BuzzFeed News spoke to officials with Hawaii's Department of Defense and Emergency Management Agency to learn what people should do in the event of an actual missile attack.

1. Have a plan set in advance and stay calm

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Prepare by thinking about your usual routine and where you would go whether you were at home, commuting, or at work.

Also, make a plan that includes your loved ones, so that you know where they are going to seek shelter — even if you're not together when you get the alert.

It's possible that you won't be able to get in touch with people when an alert is sent — either because people are flooding the system with calls or because a detonated nuclear weapon would produce an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that could destroy electrical power.

2. Seek shelter immediately

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After receiving an alert, people will have about 12 to 15 minutes before the missile will impact. Avoiding the impact will be nearly impossible, because no one will know where it will strike exactly. Instead, the goal is to avoid nuclear fallout.

Fallout includes soil, building fragments, and other material that might get caught up in the cloud of a nuclear detonation and then propelled into the sky. It takes an hour or two for it to settle again, and will include residual radiation that is harmful.

There are no official fallout shelters in the state of Hawaii, but people should either shelter in place, seek a substantial structure, or even go underground in order to have as much material surrounding them as possible. Concrete, dirt, or even books can help protect from fallout.

People who are on the road when they get a missile alert will have to determine where is the safest place to drive and how much time they have to get there, which is why it's helpful to think in advance about your usual driving routines and where along them might be good places to seek shelter.

3. Have emergency supplies ready

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The most important supplies to have are water, food, and a radio.

A hand-cranked radio with an AM frequency will help find information after the blast, since the EMP could destroy electrical power and communication devices.

Food and water will help people who need to stay inside for prolonged periods of time, possibly up to two weeks, so it is good to have that prepared in advance.

The emergency kit needed for nuclear fallout is different than for natural disasters. People have reportedly been buying potassium iodide capsules, but they will not help protect people from nuclear fallout from a bomb, according to a Hawaii Department of Defense official who spoke with BuzzFeed News.

4. Stay inside and stay tuned

Kent Nishimura / Getty Images

People must stay inside to avoid acute radiation sickness caused by the fallout. The first 48 hours is the most important time to stay inside, so at a bare minimum you should have food and water supplies for that amount of time.

Radiation decays rapidly, but people may need to stay inside for as many as 14 days and will need to wait until they can find out more information.

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency and other public safety agents will have to assess residual radiation or fallout with specialized instruments, since radiation can not be perceived by the human senses. Hopefully, the radio frequencies would be available to reach people sheltering in place.

It's still unlikely that this sort of attack will happen, especially since North Korea has not yet demonstrated that it can shoot a missile with a nuclear payload and have it successfully re-enter Earth's atmosphere, so remember: Don't panic.



A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.