A desperate attempt to outrun a nuclear missile

Wednesday, January 17th, 2018

Jason Scott Jones was taking out the trash on Saturday morning when he received the now-infamous warning:

“Ballistic missile threat inbound. Seek immediate shelter. This is not a drill.”

“So it’s today,” I thought. I’m a student of the bloody twentieth century, a hundred years of genocide, democide, and total war. I’ve lived on Oahu for almost 30 years, in sight of Pearl Harbor. It’s still a key target for surprise attack today. I’ve long thought that Oahu could be the spot where the next great tragic war begins — though not where it ends. Decades of thinking on this inspired me to write a book on the subject with John Zmirak, The Race to Save Our Century. I also recently co-authored a white paper outlining a path to abolish city-busting, strategic nuclear weapons.

Whenever someone suggests that I’m some do-gooding humanitarian, I correct them: “No, I’m just trying to save my children.” Oahu is a small island. But it’s one of the most important strategic locations for the projection of U.S. power to the East, confronting both North Korea and China. Knowing that, you come to accept a grim reality: Oahu is one of the most likely flashpoints for the start of World War III.

So when I saw the alert on my iPhone, I faced it with the same realism that wise Midwesterners greet tornado warnings. And like them I had a plan.

I rushed into the house. “Kids, get in the car. Babe, grab the case of water bottles.” They knew the drill, and soon the minivan was fully loaded. I filled water jugs, two mugs of coffee and grabbed my 9mm.

I was rushing to shelter my family behind the Waianae mountain range. That might shield us from whatever was about to hit Pearl Harbor. We had 10 minutes, I calculated, to get there, and hide in the Makua Cave.


As we made the turn into the shadow of the mountain, I felt we’d won a small victory. The first missile must have been intercepted. Or else the inept North Koreans had dropped a rocket in the middle of the Pacific. Before the next wave of missiles hit, we would make it to Makua Cave.

My hopes that this was a false alarm were fading. “If this were a hack or a hoax, the government would have texted us already.”


Just as we pulled up to Makua Cave, my cell phone rang and the State of Hawaii finally let us know that this had all been a big mistake.

In 38 minutes I’d gone from rolling out my trash can to loading five of my seven children into our minivan in a desperate attempt to outrun a nuclear missile. I’d heard my oldest daughter’s voice for what I thought was the last time. I’d given her and my mother-in-law a destination I knew offered nothing but hope. And I’d watched a total stranger turn away from safety to go try to save his wife.

(Hat tip to T. Greer.)


  1. Wan Wei Lin says:

    Heck with running away from a nuclear bomb. I’m running toward it.

  2. Lu An Li says:

    This false message was not an accident. It was purposeful and deliberate. They have had such warning messages for how long and never once had such an occurrence to my knowledge anywhere? This was done to make Trump look bad and even will be used as an example HOW we just cannot have one person [and an unstable man by some criteria] press the “button”. NOW too this same “accident” has happened in Japan!! NOT an accident either. Was purposeful to scare in a manner that is evil.

  3. Bob Sykes says:

    In a real attack, Jones and his family would have been incinerated for 20 minutes.

    PS. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, my mother expressed Wan’s view.

  4. Isegoria says:

    This talk of running toward ground zero reminds me of The Atomic Cafe (and Protect and Survive).

  5. Slovenian Guest says:

    Bob, you better go read the Glasstone blog:

    “A blog all about contradicting the widespread superstition that nuclear wars are unsurvivable and debunking hardened dogma of exaggerated nuclear effects.”

    It’s not rapture, it’s a bomb, and with a good civil defense plan most of the population would survive.

    This pulverization thing is pure myth.

    Scott Jones was probably the most rational actor on Hawaii that day; it would have worked.

    Here is a picture of said cave.

  6. Sam J. says:

    People survived Hiroshima a couple thousand yards from the blast in concrete commercial buildings.

    If you want to see for yourself run nuke map. It simulates nuke effects with different bombs anywhere you wish. I ran 800-kT bombs on my city and I think I could easily survive as I live just outside the limits. If you have three feet of Earth(or magazines or wood or water) at least,you can survive the radiation and it dies down in a couple weeks to tolerable levels. Of course the stoppage in food and other supplies means the people with nothing will try to kill you and eat you but you can survive the nuke itself.

  7. Briefly, a couple of things to keep in mind.

    NukeMap shows you pretty much the worst case scenario for a given attack profile since it doesn’t take into account topography, vegetation, and weather conditions. Topography can have a very big impact on blast effects, moreso the lower the weapon initiates. Places very close to initiation can end up almost untouched while places somewhat farther than NukeMap indicates can get flattened or at least damaged. Weather, in particular precipitation, mainly impacts the thermal pulse. If it’s raining or snowing, the range of thermal effects can be substantially reduced. On the other hand, NukeMap doesn’t tell you much about post-attack issues like fires, which the thermal pulse from a thermonuclear weapon can start quite a ways beyond the blast zone.

    Blast doesn’t scale linearly with yield. If I never hear another breathless comparison of yields, a la “X hundred times the power of the bomb that leveled Hiroshima!” it’ll be too soon. Speaking generally, blast effects scale with the 2/3 power of yield (spherical explosion, 2-dimensional target). This is why the thermal effects become proportionally more important as the yield goes up.

    At least insofar as countries with semi-modern delivery systems are concerned, nuclear weapons are not usually targeted on cities, per se. They are targeted on targets. Targets are, depending on the strategy in use, things like ICBM silos, rail yards, centers of government, power plants, dockyards, etc. Unfortunately, most of these sorts of things are concentrated in urban areas so the cities will tend to get a pasting in any kind of large-scale attack. The difference is that it’ll be (for a big city) something like 3-10 “small” 100-300 kt warheads and not one big “city buster” of the sort everyone built back when our missiles were only accurate enough to probably put the warhead within 10 miles of its target. This, by the way, is why warhead yields went up-up-up for the first part of the Cold War, basically while nuclear technology advanced faster than guidance technology, then down-down-down for the last part as it became possible to reliably put a warhead where it was supposed to go. North Korea is still in 1960s-land in this regard, though, and their targeting strategy is most likely to aim the highest-yield device they can cobble together at an area where it can’t help but do a lot of damage as long as it falls within 50 or 60 miles of where it was aimed.

    Nuclear Winter is a (very) long-discredited bit of junk science. Actual climate results of a large nuclear war would be… complicated, but as far as we can determine not very long lived. This is what you’d expect given that there have been a number of natural events in geologically recent history that released quite a bit more energy than a nuclear war but didn’t send Earth’s climate careening off the top or bottom of the temperature graph.

    An area where I think I find myself in slight disagreement with Glasstone: I think that while using a device primarily to generate HEMP is a dangerous attack method it’s sufficiently uncertain in its effects that it’s unlikely someone with very few devices will allocate them to that rather than to just destroy stuff with them the old fashioned way (which is probably more emotionally satisfying if you’re an evil dictator, anyway). Besides, it tends to want really monster devices to generate the effect over large areas.

  8. Isegoria says:

    Ignoring topography seems like a pretty big deal — if an understandable simplification for an online calculator — since that was one of the big differences between Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

    Fat Man exploded at 1,840 feet above Nagasaki and approximately 500 feet south of the Mitsubishi Steel and Armament Works with an estimated force of 22,000 tons of TNT.

    Unlike Hiroshima, there was no firestorm at Nagasaki. Despite this, the blast was more destructive to the immediate area, due to the topography and the greater power of Fat Man. However, the hilly topography limited the total area of destruction to less than that of Hiroshima, and the resulting loss of life, though horrifically high, was also less.


    In any explosion, a certain amount of protection from blast may be gained by having any large and substantial object between the protected object and the center of the explosion. This shielding effect was noticeable in the atomic explosions, just as in ordinary cases, although the magnitude of the explosions and the fact that they occurred at a considerable height in the air caused marked differences from the shielding which would have characterized ordinary bomb explosions.

    The outstanding example of shielding was that afforded by the hills in the city of Nagasaki; it was the shielding of these hills which resulted in the smaller area of devastation in Nagasaki despite the fact that the bomb used there was not less powerful. The hills gave effective shielding only at such distances from the center of explosion that the blast pressure was becoming critical – that is, was only barely sufficient to cause collapse – for the structure. Houses built in ravines in Nagasaki pointing well away from the center of the explosion survived without damage, but others at similar distances in ravines pointing toward the center of explosion were greatly damaged. In the north of Nagasaki there was a small hamlet about 8,000 feet from the center of explosion; one could see a distinctive variation in the intensity of damage across the hamlet, corresponding with the shadows thrown by a sharp hill.

    The best example of shielding by a hill was southeast of the center of explosion in Nagasaki. The damage at 8,000 feet from X consisted of light plaster damage and destruction of about half the windows. These buildings were of European type and were on the reverse side of a steep hill. At the same distance to the south-southeast the damage was considerably greater, i.e., all windows and frames, doors, were damaged and heavy plaster damage and cracks in the brick work also appeared. The contrast may be illustrated also by the fact that at the Nagasaki Prefectural office at 10,800 feet the damage was bad enough for the building to be evacuated, while at the Nagasaki Normal School to which the Prefectural office had been moved, at the same distance, the damage was comparatively light.

  9. Isegoria says:

    Scipio, “using a device primarily to generate HEMP” may be “sufficiently uncertain in its effects,” but I must remind you that the poor should lead a reckless life:

    The rich, having paid their money, just want the expected to happen. They are, in fact, willing to invest large parts of their fortunes just to decrease fluctuations. The poor, on the contrary, should lead a reckless life. It is only by great good luck that they can do anything at all. On the whole, their salvation lies in increasing the fluctuation, in making the situation chancy and uncertain.

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