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What happens if a missile is heading toward Minnesota?

How you'd be warned, and what you should do afterward.
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Residents of Hawaii were terrified Saturday when an alert was mistakenly activated, sending a warning out that a ballistic missile was headed the state's way.

It prompted citizens and tourists to make heart-wrenching decisions on where to spend what they thought could be their final moments as they sought cover, only to learn it was a false alarm.

We're not at war – yet – and even if we were, the most likely missile targets would be west/east coast cities and major military bases outside of Minnesota.

We nonetheless asked the state's Department of Public Safety what would happen if such a situation did arise.

A similar alert as Hawaii, but from the federal government

Videos of the terrifying false alarm showed TV broadcasts being interrupted and text messages sent to cellphones telling people an attack was imminent.

However, there's a big difference between what happened to Hawaii and what would happen in every other U.S. state, including Minnesota.

As the Chicago Tribune notes, Hawaii is the only state that is allowed to send its own alert about the threat of an incoming ballistic missile – and it was a state employee who made the mistake on Saturday.

For every other state, such an alert can only be sent by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which would activate the Emergency Alert System (EAS) to send out warning information over TV, radio and cable systems.

It would simultaneously transmit the same information by Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) through the cellphone system.

The initial impact of a nuclear blast

There are three immediate threats from a nuclear explosion: a shockwave, thermal energy (a fireball), and the initial radiation, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

The area of initial impact will depend on the size of the bomb, with the heat damage becoming increasingly more dangerous the larger the blast.

The shockwave would cause bodies to be thrown, buildings to fall and debris to fly, while the thermal energy can cause death and severe burns to the skin and eyes.

The initial radiation cloud – which can cause radiation poisoning leading to death and secondary effects such as leukemia – would have a radius of around 3.4 miles downwind from "ground zero" for a 1KT blast and 6 miles downwind for a 10KT blast.

But for larger nuclear bombs – say 100KT (the size of North Korea's most recently-tested bomb) – the impact would be significantly more severe, particularly for anyone living downwind, as this blast radius map of Minneapolis courtesy of Nukemap shows (the flag indicates wind direction).

What you should do in the event of a blast

To protect yourself as much as possible, the DHS says there are three things you should seek to do:

– Decrease the amount of time spent in areas where there's radiation.

– Create as much distancefrom yourself and the radiation source as possible – including by staying away from exterior walls and roofs if you're indoors.

– Create a barrier shielding yourself from the radiation source by remaining in a building or a vehicle, and getting underground if possible. Brick/concrete buildings and earth are particularly good shields, with exposure reduced by 50 percent in a one-story building, and 90 percent a level below ground. 

Depending on where you are, here's what the DHS suggests you do.

If you're outside: Lie face down on the ground and protect exposed skin, remaining flat until the initial heat and shock waves have passed. Then you cover your mouth and nose with a cloth to filter particulates from the air, before evacuating the area or finding shelter, moving in the opposite direction of the debris cloud. If you think you're exposed to contaminated dust and debris, remove outer clothing ASAP and wash off when able.

If you're in a building: Go as far below ground as possible, shutting off ventilation systems and sealing doors and windows until the fallout cloud has passed (this should only take a few hours). Stay inside until authorities say it's safe to come out, using stored food and drinking water.

If you're evacuating: Listen out for information about evacuation routes, temporary shelters and procedures to follow. If you have time before you leave, close and lock windows and doors, turn off air conditioning, vents, fans and the furnace to keep radioactive material from being sucked inside.

Here's what the DHS suggests you have in a disaster supplies kit.

What is Minnesota's disaster response?

That would be coordinated by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety Homeland Security and Emergency Management division.

It is responsible for the all-hazard Minnesota Emergency Operations Plan (MEOP), which constitutes multiple preparedness programs. Those deal with various major disasters and emergencies – including for the main nuclear risk facing Minnesota: meltdowns/leaks at the Monticello and Prairie Island nuclear plants.

The disaster response document is huge – you can read it all here – and its covers processes including notifying the public, evacuation plans, incident management, search and rescue, medical services, damage protection, environmental hazard response and public utilities restoration.

It also provides succession plans in case key state officials, such as the governor, should die in an emergency.

And in the event of a nuclear incident (like a meltdown), the immediate actions undertaken would be as follows:

  • Evacuation of public at risk from long term health hazards.
  • Returning them to areas where health risks are no longer present.
  • Assessing the release of hazardous materials.
  • Protection of food and water supplies outside the “ground zero” restricted zone.
  • Re-entry into the restricted zone to restore services and infrastructure.

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