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Local writer Ryan Bradford specializes in humor, but there was nothing funny about Saturday, Jan. 18, 2018. He started the morning by snorkeling near his hotel in Maui, where he’d travelled for a friend’s wedding, but as he surfaced for air, he saw a man urgently motioning him to come back to shore.
“He had this calm clarity that made me think something is really wrong,” Bradford said. “He’s trying to pretend that everything is fine, trying to warn me not to panic.”
Maybe a shark was lurking nearby, Bradford thought. But the truth was even more disturbing.
Phones across the state of Hawaii had just screeched with an emergency alert: “BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” Similar messages interrupted TV and radio broadcasts too.
A man ran down the beach screaming as Bradford and other members of the wedding party hustled to their nearby hotel.
“It was by far the most surreal moment of my life,” he said. “Everybody had this really panicked and solemn energy — moving fast, frowning, wanting a destination but not knowing where to go.”
The alert, of course, was a false alarm, a product of a colossal screw-up at Hawaii’s emergency management department.
“Before Hawaii, nuclear war was just a product of those 1980s Cold War sci-fi movies that I grew up watching,” Bradford said. “After, it put the possibility in the forefront of my brain.”
He has plenty of company this month. Russia’s war against Ukraine and last week’s surprise launch of an intercontinental missile by North Korea has focused more minds on the prospect of nuclear war than anytime in at least three decades. Hawaii is so prepared that its emergency sirens are set to air a unique sound in case of an incoming nuclear attack. But what about San Diego?
Experts don’t think we’re one of the top handful of nuclear targets in the U.S., but we’re still in the crosshairs of Russia or North Korea. While we’ve been nuked multiple times in books, TV shows and a movie, there’s little if any special preparedness for nuclear attacks here, and it seems unlikely that we’d get a Hawaii-style warning alert.
Is San Diego a Top Nuclear Target?
You might assume we would be a target during a nuclear war, since we’re a major military center. But experts believe the Russians, at least, would first target missile silos in the Midwest and the centers of power on the East Coast.
“If there was a Russian all-out attempt at a ‘decapitating’ attack, they would presumably want to first try and stop the U.S. from being able to reply in kind,” said Alex Wellerstein, a historian who studies nuclear weapons at the Stevens Institute of Technology. “So the targets would presumably be U.S. nukes that had not yet been launched, as well as U.S. command and control — the political, military, and technical agencies and people who are in charge of ordering nukes to be launched.”
However, he said, “if you imagine this as a response to indications of a U.S. attack, they might not bother to attack missile silos if they thought it would be too late to be worth it.”
Experts think large metros like San Diego would be bombed in a later round of Russian nuclear attacks aimed at killing off tens of millions of Americans. As for North Korea, San Diego may be a top target because we’re a major port of the Pacific Fleet, the Washington Post reported in 2017. The paper also noted that “a missile defense system in Alaska and California is designed to protect the United States by intercepting incoming bombs in space, but testing has found technical problems and its effectiveness is not known.”
Would We Get an Emergency Alert Warning?
It seems doubtful.
“There are multiple agencies, at the state, federal, and sometimes local levels, that would be involved in propagating these kinds of alerts,” Wellerstein said. “It is not always clear that in a crisis they would work as intended or be as clear or useful as desired. The Hawaiian false alert should have been a real wake-up call on this front, but the main response seems to have been to become even more wary about these kinds of systems.”
A congressional bill introduced by a U.S. senator from Hawaii after the false alert aimed to mandate that the federal government handle emergency alerts about nuclear attacks. But the bill failed.
There’s another potential hitch about emergency alerts: Missiles travel quickly, unlike in the Cold War era when they traveled on bombers that would take hours to get here. Missiles bound toward the U.S. may take just 30 minutes to reach our shores, with those from North Korea taking a bit longer, said Stephen Schwartz, a senior fellow at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. (They’re the folks behind the Doomsday Clock, which estimates how close we are to apocalypse from nuclear war or other causes.)
Missiles fired from Russian submarines off shore may take even less than a half hour to arrive.
It’s hard to imagine that emergency management officials would be able to confirm and coordinate emergency messages to the public in that time.
What Would Happen if a Nuclear Bomb Hit San Diego?
Wallerstein has created an online simulation called NukeMap that imagines what would happen at any world location in various nuclear attack simulations. I used the site to simulate what could happen if an 800-kiloton Russian Topol missile blows up over the San Diego Convention Center.
An estimated 216,000 people would die, and 494,000 would be injured. Everyone and everything within about half a mile — including the Gaslamp Quarter, Horton Plaza, and the ballpark — would be incinerated by a fireball. Third-degree burns would strike people from Serra Mesa to Chula Vista and from Ocean Beach/Point Loma to almost as far east as highway 125. (These burns are the worst kind.) Windows would break as far away as San Ysidro, La Mesa, and University City.
Even one nuclear bomb would create more burn victims than there are burn-treatment beds in the entire U.S., nuclear researcher Schwartz said.
There are bigger bombs than the one in this scenario that would do even more damage and kill more people, per NukeMap. If set off above the convention center, China’s largest nuclear missile, the 5,000-kiloton Dong-Feng 5, could kill 456,000 people and injure 1.4 million.
How Prepared Is San Diego for a Nuclear Attack?
San Diego County has an emergency operations plan but it mainly addresses nuclear threats related to terrorism and the nearby San Onofre nuclear power plant, not missiles. Ventura County, in contrast, is a leader on this front: It has published a 18-page nuclear attack preparation and safety guide.
San Diego County used to maintain a list of bomb shelters but it no longer does. (In the 1960s, a report said we were woefully underprepared for a nuclear attack, shelter-wise.) The county’s air raid system, which was in place during the Cold War, has been dismantled.
So, is it even worth preparing if we’re all going to be toast?
We’re not all going to be toast, at least not right away.
“The public assumes that once a nuclear attack began, everyone would be dead pretty much instantly,” Wellerstein said. “A lot of people would survive such an attack, even in the cities under attack.”
In the Russian nuclear attack scenario above, for example, an estimated 1.43 million people in the county would be directly affected by the bomb, mainly through damage and injury. But most would live – just like nearly half the inhabitants of Hiroshima after the World War II attack there.
“Even in a full, all-out nuclear attack, most of the country would survive,” Wellerstein said. “More grimly, that means there would be a lot more survivors who would have to deal with the catastrophe, with the clean-up, with the grief and loss, and with the horrendous damages to food supply, environment, infrastructure, government services, and so on that would follow. That side of things is worth emphasizing because in the Hollywood version, where everybody dies, there’s a sense of finality there. The reality would have a lot more long-term trauma for an unimaginably huge number of people.”
Wait, Did You Say San Diego Keeps Getting Attacked in Fiction?
Yes! We’re just sitting here minding our own sunny business, but pesky novelists and screenwriters insist on blowing us to smithereens.
Last year, a best-selling book called “2034: A Novel of the Next World War,” co-written by a well-known retired Navy admiral named James Stavridis, imagines that San Diego and Galveston, Texas, are hit by Chinese nuclear missiles. We become a land of “wretched camps” where “cyclical outbreaks of typhus, measles and even smallpox often sprouted from the unbilged latrines and rows of plastic tenting.”
We had a close call in another recent book: 2018’s well-reviewed “The 2020 Commission Report On The North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against The U.S.: A Speculative Novel,” written by a nuclear war researcher. It imagines that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un fires missiles at Pearl Harbor and San Diego to head off an American invasion by sea. (He had misinterpreted a tweet by then-President Trump that called him “Rocket Man.”) Missiles also target the White House, New York City, and Mar-a-Lago.
Most of North Korea’s 13 missiles go awry, and the ones bound for San Diego land harmlessly in the ocean. Whew! Manhattan isn’t so lucky, though, nor is Florida.
There’s more. Back in the 2000s, the TV show “Jericho” about the nuclear war after-times included us on a map of cities that have been bombed to bits. Plus: the 2017 movie “Blade Runner 2049” depicts a bombed-out San Diego as a waste dump for L.A. that’s full of tattered trash pirates. And the TV sci-fi show “Babylon Five” refers to the post-nuclear-attack “San Diego Wastelands” following our bombing in the year 2157, just before ground breaks on the Convention Center expansion. Show creator J. Michael Straczynski later fessed up about why he nuked us. “Having lived in San Diego from 1974-81, it’s just my way of giving a wink to the old home town,” he said.
All this does make the death and destruction wreaked by a rampaging T-Rex on San Diego in “Jurassic Park: The Lost World” seem like a walk in the … you know.
What Should We Do Now?
Wallerstein said it’s wise to get ready.
“Preparedness for a nuclear attack is basically the same for most natural disasters,” he said, “and with climate change we are going to have a lot more of those anyway. So it’s a useful thing to do no matter what.”
The old “Duck and Cover!” films of the Cold War get mocked a lot, but the general ideas hold up: Protect yourself physically right away. The advice has changed, though, and now focuses on the moments after a blast. Ready.gov, a government preparedness website, includes this advice under a gnarly and triggering photo of a nuclear mushroom cloud: Get away from radiation by heading inside, preferably underground, and don’t go out for 24 hours or until there’s an all-clear.
For now, “look for basements,” the site advises — clearly written by someone who doesn’t live in Southern California — and get an emergency kit ready.
As for the larger threat of nuclear war, Wellerstein said “the most important thing in my mind is that people start to see this as a real part of their lives, and not some kind of metaphor or abstraction. Once they do that, there are a lot of possible options for thinking about what to do next, both individually and collectively. Until that is begun, people are going to be part of the problem, not the solution.”