A year ago at 8:07 a.m. local time, thousands of people in Hawaii received a terrifying message on their cellphones from the state’s Emergency Management Agency:
“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
This alert was repeated on television and radio and amplified dramatically through social media. It took 38 minutes for officials to send an official follow-up alert saying that it was a false alarm. Sent in earnest by a state emergency employee, the alert was not (as widely reported originally) a case of simply clicking the wrong button.
In that interval, individuals had a variety of responses, often involving terror and panic. One question was often repeated in interviews, “What should we do?” Following on its heels was another: “What can we do, besides say goodbye?”
Surprisingly to many, the answer is “more than you might think.”
Research from the Cold War has shown that laying flat inside a building — any building — dramatically increases your chances of survival (the old “duck and cover” approach). More recent work that models radioactive contamination suggests that hundreds of thousands of people could avoid becoming “preventable casualties” should they just stay inside their house for at least 24 hours while the fallout clears.
There’s no guarantee of survival, of course. If a nuclear bomb went off directly over your head, your chances are essentially nil. But if you’re in between the distance of “dead before you know it” and being able to ask, “what was that?” then your next actions can dramatically affect survival and health outcomes.
Unfortunately, the absolute worst choices to make are the ones that many people want to take: either searching for and reuniting with your family or getting into your car and fleeing the area.
With these reactions in mind, two of us (Karl and Lytle) conducted a national study of more than 2,000 U.S. citizens in April and June to understand whether they know how to respond in the aftermath of a nuclear attack.
The bad news: Many people (43 percent) said they would do the exact things that could increase their chances of dying or being severely injured by trying to reunite with their family or evacuating the area.
But there is still a larger problem. On the whole, our research clearly shows that Americans do not see nuclear issues as particularly important, they do not like to think or talk about it and they prefer to ignore news about it.
Media attention on nuclear attacks peaked around the time of the late 2017 war of words between President Trump and North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, and the early 2018 false Hawaiian missile alert. As coverage faded, so did citizens’ attention.
Yet we still live in a nuclear world. The nuclear threats that caught most Americans by surprise last year are still lurking just around the corner.
Martin Amis, in his 1987 book “Einstein’s Monsters,” questioned whether anyone really could avoid thinking about the bomb. “Everyone is interested in nuclear weapons, even those people who affirm and actually believe that they never give the question a moment’s thought. We are all interested parties,” he wrote. “The man with the cocked gun in his mouth may boast that he never thinks about the cocked gun. But he tastes it, all the time.”
Kristyn Karl is a professor of political science and Ashley Lytle is a professor of psychology at Stevens Institute of Technology. Alex Wellerstein is a historian of nuclear weapons.