OMAHA, Neb. — If Ed Rasmussen ever got the kind of heart-stopping text message — ballistic missile coming! — that people in Hawaii recently received, the Omaha man at least would appear to have a place to go.
His Dundee home has an underground bomb shelter that could fit him, his wife Jo Rasmussen, and their grown children and grandchildren, 12 in all. They’d be a little cramped on the concrete floor, but at least they could stand and stretch under a roomy 7-to-8-foot domed ceiling made of something like fiberglass. If they needed a quick exit, an iron ladder leads to a hatch that opens near the detached garage.
The Rasmussens would need food, of course. And fresher water than the jugs that have that have been sitting in the bunker since at least 1974, when they bought the house.
This presumes, of course, they’d survive a nuclear hit. Or want to.
The Rasmussens have treated the Cold War-era shelter as their son’s onetime drum studio and a sometime vegetable root cellar. Mostly, they forget it’s there.
But a series of events in the past year have again raised the specter of nuclear holocaust — something I’d thought had gone out of style, along with spiral perms and shoulder pads, when the Cold War ended in 1991.
North Korea’s latest missile test, in November, showed scientists that the regime might be capable of striking anywhere in the continental United States. North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump have traded threats and boasted about nuclear capabilities.
Then there was Hawaii.
A state emergency management worker accidentally sent out the missile alert — punctuated by the horror-inducing last line “THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” It took the state 38 minutes to correct it. That’s about the amount of time it would have taken for a real ballistic missile to hit Hawaii.
People hunkered in bathtubs, abandoned cars, searched Google for survival tips and sent poignant texts to loved ones. No one knew what to do or where to go. Three days later, a Japanese broadcaster repeated the warning — and then corrected it.
That has made the once unthinkable suddenly all too thinkable. And not just in Hawaii. If a nuke was coming, say, for Offutt Air Force Base near Bellevue, how would we find out? And what would we do?
IPAWS, or the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, is the federal government’s way of instantly warning the most people through TV and radio broadcasts, digital road signs and text messages.
Most cellphone users in all 50 states can receive the messages. Local emergency officials can tailor alerts for certain geographies.
Hawaii’s error occurred because a state employee, in what was supposed to have been normal practice, instead chose the wrong item in a drop-down menu of pre-scripted IPAWS warnings that also included tsunami, landslide and high-surf alerts.
Bryan Tuma, assistant director of the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency, said Nebraska had pre-scripted messages for emergencies at one of the state’s two nuclear power plants, in Fort Calhoun and Brownsville. Because Fort Calhoun’s plant is being decommissioned, NEMA no longer runs alert drills.
Should a missile be headed our way, Tuma said, the most likely alert scenario would be this: The federal government contacts the Nebraska State Patrol, its primary 24-7 contact, or NEMA over the National Alert and Warning System. Then, the federal government issues a public threat warning over IPAWS. The State Patrol and NEMA would send further alert updates that would be more specific to actions people should take.
But what about our neighbor, the eyes and ears of nukes, StratCom? The U.S. Strategic Command, located at Offutt, keeps tabs on missile activity through a multilayered system of sensors.
“We’d be aware of a missile coming in,” Maj. Brian Maguire, StratCom spokesman, told the Omaha World-Herald . “It’s definitely something we think about because it’s one of our responsibilities.”
Maguire said StratCom would alert the U.S. Department of Defense, triggering the wider public alert.
The Hawaii mishap showed the terrible risk of how a third world war could inadvertently begin, wrote William Perry, former U.S. secretary of defense, in a piece that ran in Politico. He described past near-misses and said hackers increase the risk today. He said the appearance of a strike could lead, in turn, to a response that would be “no less than the end of our civilization as we know it.”
Which brings me to the cheery part of this column called How to Survive a Nuclear Attack.
FEMA’s website offers stark advice: Get as far away from the blast and fallout as you can. Get behind thick-enough shelter. Wait. Radioactivity decreases over time.
Rebecca Oberley-Deegan, a radiation biologist and associate professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, is part of a local team tapped to help find ways to mitigate radiation exposure through a U.S. Army grant. The Army has a radiation-mitigation drug, but it causes severe nausea and a dizziness-inducing drop in blood pressure that’s not good for soldiers in combat.
Assuming that one survives the heat and shock wave of a nuclear blast, what exactly happens if you do get exposed to too much radiation?
Oberley-Deegan says it could kill blood cells, bringing on an infection; trash the cells in the gastrointestinal system so the body can’t absorb nutrients or water; or turn healthy tissue to scar tissue over time. All would lead to death.
The better you’re protected — say by distance or an underground bunker — the better your chances.
So, if the unthinkable happens and our cellphones in Omaha light up with the ballistic missile alert, should residents try to squeeze in with the Rasmussens?
They seem like very hospitable people. Their home is a not-far walk from the med center.
Plus, there might be room for a few since neither Ed Rasmussen nor Jo Rasmussen plans to use the bunker in a nuclear Armageddon.
“Would I want to come out?” Ed Rasmussen asked. “What would be left?”
Information from: Omaha World-Herald, http://www.omaha.com
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Omaha World-Herald.