I’ve often been able to distance my emotions from my reasoning, able to look at a situation dispassionately and examine some truly horrifying ideas and possibilities. It’s not something I brag about — in fact, I sometimes find it profoundly disturbing — but nonetheless, there it is. For example, between the first and second plane impacts on the World Trade Center, I found myself Googling for accounts of the Army bomber colliding with the Empire State Building as a sort of precedent, a touchstone to give some perspective to the situation.
A little while ago I read a piece (I don’t recall where) (Update: Kyrie reminds me it was Donald Sensing’s piece here) that discussed the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina. It was the author’s conclusion that the response, had it been a terrorist attack and not a natural disaster, would have been much swifter.
With that in mind, and applying what little I know about terrorism and nuclear weapons, I armed myself with Google and started rampant speculation about what might have happened if terrorists had struck New Orleans with a nuclear device.
As I said, I know little about the subjects, as well as little about New Orleans geography. So to just simplify matters immensely, I decided to arbitrarily choose a 10KT bomb (“suitcase nukes” run between 1 and 6 KT, so I chose 10 to have a starting point). And for detonation point, I just fired up Google Earth and stuck it just east of the Superdome.
OK, using the Nuclear Weapon Effects Calculator here, and combining it with Google Earth, it appears that on the scene, a tremendous fire will be started. Further, all residential buildings within a half-mile radius will be destroyed, and commercial buildings will be severely destroyed. Within a mile, buildings will suffer moderate damage.
And within that mile radius is the Mississippi River, and several levees. Which means that on top of everything else, The Big Easy will most likely have to deal with flooding.
Enough of the property damage. Let’s look at the human toll. With no hard information, I think it’s safe to speculate the immediate death toll would be into five figures, with at least that many fatally injured, and another five figures worth of wounded and in need of medical attention.
Now it’s time to compare and contrast with Hurricane Katrina.
1) Response to the disaster.
On the one hand, a nuclear attack on New Orleans would come as a surprise, where Katrina at least gave us a little warning. That allowed some evacuation, cutting the potential death toll down by several orders of magnitude. It also allowed rescue efforts time to prepare, from alerting teams and allowing Navy ships to “shadow” the storm and arrive on scene shortly after the disaster.
On the other hand, the devastation from a nuclear blast would be far more localized. Only within a couple of miles of the blast zone would be affected. The only obstacle rescuers would have to face would be the mobs of fleeing people clogging the roads.
Katrina, on the other hand, was far larger than a nuclear blast, far more powerful, and distributed its effects over an area the size of Great Britain. She destroyed roads, bridges, railroad tracks, airports, gas stations — all the infrastructure needed to move large quantities of people and supplies into the disaster zone. Rescuers found they ahd to first find passable routes into New Orleans, then make sure they had enough fuel to make it in and back. The last thing New Orleans needed was hordes of would-be rescuers becoming yet more people needing rescue.
The devastation to the city has some parallels, too. In a ground burst, there is a lot of fallout and other radioactive material scattered around. Likewise, the floodwaters currently covering large portions of New Orleans are being described as a “toxic soup” that, even after the water is removed, will most likely leave the land contaminated. The question that will have to be determined once the water is gone is just how badly, and how much cleaning will have to be done to make it tolerable.
So yeah, it could have been a lot worse. And it could have been a lot better. But let me leave you with this one horrifying thought:
The above scenario I constructed was based on a 10-KT bomb. That’s the equivalent of ten thousand tons of dynamite. According to NOAA, a fully developed hurricane can release the equivalent power of a 20-MT nuclear weapon. That’s twenty MILLION tons of dynamite. That’s 2,000 times bigger than the suitcase nuke I postulated.
Two final points: NOAA’s figures are based on a “fully developed hurricane.” Katrina was a BIG storm, and probably exceeded their calculations. And I didn’t mention that NOAA’s figures say it releases the power of that bomb every twenty minutes.