CORTLAND — It’s a normal January day as people in Cortland are sitting at home trying to keep warm when their phones buzz. It’s an alert from the Cortland County Emergency and Response Office’s Hyper Reach notification system.
A nuclear attack is on the way: 38 minutes.
That is how much time people in Hawaii were thrown into the real situation of what to do Jan. 13 as a nuclear attack was heading their way.
Only 38 minutes. That’s how long it took for Hawaii’s emergency management to correct the false alarm.
It wasn’t only in Hawaii. A similar false alarm occurred in Japan a few days later.
Cortland is 4,767 miles away from Hawaii and 6,571 miles from Japan. But North Korea has tested an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting anywhere in America, Defense Secretary James Mattis has said.
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists also announced this week that it has moved its Doomsday Clock to 2 minutes before midnight. The last time the clock was that close to nuclear armageddon was 65 years ago in 1953.
So what if Cortland is the target, or someplace nearby? What if we have 38 minutes?
Cortland County emergency planners admit they have no plan for this.
A website called nuclearsecrecy.com has a map that allows users to see the impact of a bomb by entering information based on point of impact and size of the nuclear weapon. The nuclear map was created by Alex Wellerstein, a historian of science and nuclear weapons and a professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology.
If a nuclear weapon yielding 150 kilotons, like the weapon tested by North Korea in 2017, was to hit the four corners of Main, Port Watson and Tompkins streets in the city then everything in a 0.3-mile radius, an area that would encompass the city from Cedar Street to Graham Avenue and Maple Avenue to South Avenue, of the blast would be consumed by the fireball, according to the map.
Everything within 1 1/4 miles of the point of impact would be hit with 500 rems, a unit of radiation dosage, of radiation. Without medical treatment, anywhere from 50 percent to 90 percent of people in that zone would die, according to the map. Going farther out to 1.9 miles from the epicenter, people would experience third-degree burns, according to the map.
And radiation from fallout particles could travel 165 miles on the wind.
According to the map, in such a blast, close to 20,290 people would die.
38 minutes: Here’s what they would do
Put yourself in the place of someone from Hawaii. You have 38 minutes before a nuclear attack would arrive. What would you do? Here’s what people in Cortland County said:
“I would just pray,” said Melissa Metzger of Homer but given the recent events in Hawaii, where a warning of a nuclear bomb lasted for 38 minutes, she is skeptical that it is real. “Things aren’t always what they seem.”
Metzger thinks about nuclear attacks only when she reads about the possibility of one, or when watching a disaster movie.
“I trust God to take care of me,” Metzger said.
Laws would have little meaning to Antonella Dintino of Cortland. But she would only break the law to help others.
She would grab her child, anyone around her and leave. She wouldn’t waste time grabbing belongings.
But along the way she would try to help and alert as many people as she can.
Dintino said she would knock on people’s doors, go into their house if she has to, to make sure they know they need to leave. She said she would also go into senior citizen homes and set off the alarms to alert everyone it is time to go.
“I would do anything,” Dintino said. “I would break the law. It is your life.”
Philip Asaph said Thursday if he only had 38 minutes until a nuclear missile struck Cortland he would hope he was with his girlfriend. “We would pray and meditate,” Asaph said.
Asaph, an author from Cortland, said he would also like to read some spiritual books and call certain people he knows. “Leave them with kind words,” Asaph said.
However, he doesn’t see Cortland as a target of nuclear attack.: “Albany maybe, or New York City.”
Luke Stevenson of Cortland said he would get his partner and two daughters together to spend the last few minutes together.
“Nowhere in Cortland seems nuclear ready,” Stevenson said. “Maybe I would shield them with my body.”
Death is something on Stevenson’s mind lately, since his grandfather died this month. But he tries not to think about it, or the possibility of a nuclear bomb, too much.
“If all you can think about is death, it’s debilitating for you,” Stevenson said.
John Carbona paused for a couple of seconds.
“Huh,” the Cortland man said with a chuckle. “It is hard to say what you would do.”
For him, the most logical answer is to just find shelter, the safest place he can get to.
The threat is nothing new to him, having served in the Korean War from 1951 to 1953. He said he is well aware of the tensions in North Korea. While a nuclear missile aimed at Cortland may be an unlikely scenario, Carbona said: “You never know. There is no telling what the hell they (North Korea) are going to do.”
Staff reporters Robert Creenan, Jacob DeRochie and Nick Graziano contributed to this report.
Before the Blast
Cortland County has no specific emergency plan in place yet for a nuclear attack — not to survive one, not to get away from one, said Courtney Metcalf, deputy director of Cortland County’s Emergency Response and Communication Office. “A nuclear event was not in the hazard assessment,” she said, the federal- and county-prepared plan for different disasters.
The thought of a nuclear attack never even came up until the scare in Hawaii, Metcalf said. But now the office is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to create a response plan.
An evacuation plan is also being developed. “We don’t have evacuations plans yet,” she said.
If a nuclear missile were to target Cortland, however, Metcalf said the office would use its federal notification system to alert everyone in the county. It would take minutes. “Someone in the dispatch center would send it (the notification) out,” she said.
Distance, time, shelter
Cortland County has no bomb shelters, Metcalf said. The Cold War-era shelters that used to dot the community — 44 of them in 1969 — have long since been dismantled. The buildings are there, but they lack food, water and other supplies to endure the weeks of radioactive fallout that comes with a nuclear blast.
Shielding is one of the three components of surviving a radioactive attack. Distance and time are others, according to the federal Department of Homeland Security.
Putting distance between yourself and the fallout helps. Shielding is even better, anything that provides a barrier between you and the outside and the sturdier the better, and allowing time — about two weeks — for the material to dissipate, the greatest threat in the first two weeks, is also crucial.
Any protection is better than none at all, and the more distance and time you can take advantage of, the better.
According to Metcalf there is no place in the county set aside as a fallout shelter that is stocked with provisions. In stocking a shelter at home, it is recommended to have at least a gallon of drinking water per person per day and the same for pets, she said. But in order for that shelter to do any good, it would have to be at least 1.5 miles from the epicenter. Anything closer would be crushed by the shockwave.
Even if Cortland isn’t struck by a nuclear attack the community might be affected. If Syracuse, Binghamton or Ithaca are hit and survivors flood Cortland County, Metcalf said the county would work with Red Cross to provide shelter and provisions.
Thomas Margrave, Red Cross community volunteer leader for Cortland County, said the pattern of radioactive fallout would likely follow the wind, so it would probably occur to the east and southeast.
“I would hope that the Department of Defense and Homeland Security will revise and provide more information if the threat increases,” he said.
Even though the mistaken alarm sent out in Hawaii caused great alarm and panic, it could actually have been a serendipitous event, he said.
“Because people realized we’ve really gotten away from thinking about these kinds of things,” Margrave said. “They’re terrible to contemplate but people still need to do what they can to be prepared.”
Before any disaster hits, people can take precautions: make sure they have basic provisions on hand; an area that could be a designated fallout shelter; gathering important documents, medications and other supplies in case of an evacuation.
Even a motorcycle or bicycle helmet could protect one’s head in the event of a blast, maybe the difference between life or death, he said.
“As we know from tornadoes and some hurricane situations, the most serious injuries and fatalities come from head injuries,” Margrave said. “And in some ways the blast and shockwave of a nuclear attack would affect the same kind of damage as a tornado.”
Schools, McGraw and Cortland in particular, would be points of contact for people to see if they could take shelter in gymnasiums, Margrave said. Both these districts are agreeable to providing emergency shelters in a disaster. However, the County Office Building gym, once a shelter, is no longer because it is not accessible to people with disabilities, said Scott Roman, the county director of emergency management and communications.
While there would be directives from the government and the local department of emergency communications, people should know the basics beforehand, Margrave said.
“What we would say based on our preparedness information is people should seek out the lowest room in which there are no windows and barricade themselves inside and then lie prone to minimize the effect of any debris,” Margrave said.
But FEMA, which would take the lead on responding to a target, is realistic about what to expect, it shows in a 2016 report: “Even a relatively small nuclear detonation in an urban area could result in tens of thousands of fatalities, a large number of survivors requiring medical care, behavioral health and dose assessments given concerns of medically relevant exposure, as well as massive infrastructure damage and hundreds of square miles of contamination.
What you should do
Here’s how to prepare for a nuclear blast, according to the Department of Homeland Security:
• Create an emergency supply kit.
• Make a family emergency plan.
• Find out from officials if any public buildings in your community have been designated as fallout shelters.
• If your community has no designated fallout shelters, make a list of potential shelters near your home, workplace and school, such as basements, subways, tunnels, or the windowless center area of middle floors in a high-rise building.
• During periods of heightened threat, increase your disaster supplies to be adequate for up to two weeks.