Sitting duck…and cover.

Last month, William J. Broad reported in an absolutely terrific story in the “New York Times” that the United States government has important new guidelines on how people can best survive a nuclear attack. The recommendations? Stay inside. Stay inside some more. No, really: Stay inside. Don’t go outside and try and catch radioactive fallout on your tongue like snowflakes.

This is more than a little reminiscent of that great “duck and cover” strategy of the 1950s, in which the minute you saw the white flash, you were supposed to pee in your pants and curl into the fetal position. If there was a table nearby, you were supposed to crawl underneath it, because apparently a table is the one thing in the world that nuclear bombs don’t incinerate.

The U.S. survival strategy is based on the assumption that the nuclear device will be detonated by terrorists in a city, and not part of a doomsday scenario in which two or more countries launch nuclear bombs as if they’re mere 4th of July bottle rockets. This is important because it means that disaster assistance eventually will arrive. Sure, you’re living in a basement without ventilation, running water, or working cable TV to keep up with “The Biggest Loser,” but the cavalry is coming. The port-a-potties are on the way.

And as we all learned from the government’s emergency response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, no one spells relief like FEMA – the Federal Emergency Management Agency. (Their motto? What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.) And a little old nuclear detonation is probably child’s play compared to a natural disaster like a hurricane.

The key to survival, according to the U.S. planning guide, is to avoid fallout – hence the importance of staying inside. If you’re inside your car, stay there. Roll up the windows and sit tight. If you’re inside your car in an underground parking garage, you’re golden (versus glowing), because underground parking garages are deemed especially good places to avoid lethal radioactive fallout. Of course, your Sirius satellite radio won’t work if you’re in a parking garage, so you won’t be able to pass the time with Howard Stern or the best of Broadway. But even a few hours of waiting inside can make a huge difference.

To wit, Broad cited a computer model of what would happen if a nuclear device were detonated in Los Angeles. If Californians more than a mile from ground zero remained outside after the blast – trying to photograph Paris Hilton for TMZ, for example, as she emerged from a nightclub or hotel bar – 285,000 people would wind up casualties from fallout. But if they waited for her in their cars or in minimal shelter, the casualty figure would plummet to 125,000. And if they waited for Paris with telephoto periscope lenses deep inside office buildings, the total might fall all the way to 45,000.

So, these guidelines are not as loopy as they sound.

The very best part of Broad’s article, however, wasn’t the helpful governmental advice he shared. It was this tidbit: Las Vegas was chosen for a live exercise in emergency preparedness – a simulation of a terrorist detonation of a nuclear bomb. Instead it was the casinos that went nuclear. They said the test would terrify tourists, and so it was cancelled.

I think the casinos made a big mistake. To begin with, if you should stay inside in the event of a nuclear blast, in a world with thick walls and few windows, what safer place is there than a Las Vegas casino? I think casinos would want to have their guests trapped by fallout inside their windowless worlds. Sure, it’s a gamble. But what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas – even, if the winds are calm, nuclear fallout.

Happy New Year.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on January 2, 2011.)


Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

One thought on “Sitting duck…and cover.

  1. Victoria Johnson says:

    I attended the book signing at the Barnes in Noble in Milwaukee. I’m the one who said i work at a domestic violence shelter and working on my first novel. Just wanted to thank Mr. Bohjalian once again for his comments and his book bringing awareness to the issue of domestic violence. It’s still one of America’s ugly secrets, along with the sexual abuse of children. May our tribe increase.

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