(TNS) - A North Korean missile, armed with a powerful nuclear warhead, rockets toward the northeastern United States on a trajectory that could take it to Rhode Island or somewhere close by.
The unthinkable scenario has become more realistic amid the stream of headlines about missile tests in the Hermit Kingdom and talk about nuclear buttons by North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump.
But the prospect of a nuclear missile attack remains too unlikely to warrant specific planning and training by Rhode Island's emergency managers, according to the director of the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency, Peter Gaynor.
"We typically plan for the thing that's most likely to happen next," Gaynor says. "That's a winter storm with a power outage."
In 2017, experts determined that North Korea had developed missiles capable of hitting the United States' East Coast. But they do not know if the country's nuclear warheads are miniaturized enough to fit the rockets; experts also doubt that the warheads are tough enough to handle the fiery heat of reentering the earth's atmosphere.
Despite those uncertainties, North Korea's missile advances worry many observers. Also, after the recent false alarm about a missile headed to Hawaii, questions are being raised about preparedness for an attack on the United States.
At the state level, what's being done to prepare for the threat of a North Korean missile attack? Can the same type of bogus alarm that happened in Hawaii happen here in Rhode Island?
A nuclear missile attack is not among the 21 hazards that RIEMA has identified as priorities: from natural events such as tropical storms to technological hazards such as a failure of a wastewater system to "human-caused" threats such as terrorism.
The agency has not made preparations specific to dealing with the effects of a missile attack in Rhode Island or in neighboring Connecticut.
RIEMA has no plans involving the old civil defense fallout shelters around the state and not much is left of civil defense pamphlets and documents from the 1960s.
"All that type of stuff has been boxed up and put in the closets," Gaynor says.
But not making specific preparations isn't the same thing as not making any preparations at all, says Gaynor.
The agency's written emergency plans, both for specific events and for dealing with some disasters, are saved on hard drives. Printed versions are compiled in binders and stored in a locked pantry in a hallway outside RIEMA's emergency operations center in Cranston.
One binder contains a specific plan for a radiological incident, perhaps terrorists detonating a dirty bomb or an incident at a New England nuclear power plant.
EMA's plans for this kind of disaster include provisions for tracking plumes of contaminants in the atmosphere, for decontaminating people and keeping contaminants out of hospitals.
Rhode Islanders would receive instructions via various emergency alert systems to "shelter in place" in their homes and businesses, which follows the advice that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security gives for a nuclear attack.
While the state hasn't planned for nuclear fallout specifically from a missile hit, it does have useful plans and resources, according to Gaynor and others. Dr. Heath "Hank" Brightman, a professor at the Naval War College, is one of those resources.
"From where I sit, and have long been involved, I'm quite confident and comfortable with our infrastructure, people and warning systems both prior to an event and in post-event response," says Brightman, who focuses on humanitarian response by civilian and military entities in his teaching.
Gaynor acknowledges that RIEMA's plans are not adequate for the type of destruction Rhode Island would see if it sustained a direct hit from a missile tipped with a nuclear warhead. Such an event would likely exceed the preparedness by local emergency agencies anywhere in the country, he says.
The benefit of preventative measures for people who are farther away from a missile strike really comes down to "the luck of the draw," according to Edwin Lyman, a scientist and internationally recognized expert who has testified before Congress.
"What we're really talking about is protecting yourself from the radioactive fallout that would disperse along the prevailing wind patterns from the blast," said Lyman, of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Emergency managers would need precise information on the type of nuclear weapon and on the location of the explosion to effectively judge the magnitude of fallout and make appropriate plans with fallout tracking tools and meteorology, said Lyman.
Lyman is doubtful such information would be available, and he says preparedness measures developed for "dirty bombs" would not be "anywhere near adequate to cope with the aftermath of even a low-yield nuclear explosion."
Lyman suggests the false sense of security that might come from trying to establish an effective civil defense from a nuclear weapon attack would probably be "worse than nothing at all."
Any effort to direct and protect Rhode Islanders following a nuclear attack will rely, in no small part, on the communication system that sent out a false alert in Hawaii earlier this month, urging Hawaiians to seek shelter from "an inbound ballistic missile."
A vestige of the Cold War now integrated with modern bells and whistles, the radio-based emergency alert system (EAS) is one capability in a kit of emergency tools that state and federal officials would turn to under such doomsday circumstances.
A Hawaii civil defense officer mistakenly sent out the alert as part of a test being run in the emergency operations center of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.
During the drill, the officer selected an incorrect "template" to send an actual emergency alert out to Hawaii's population, according to an account that Hawaii's EMA director, Vern Miyagi, gave to media.
After the wrong template was selected, the officer then gave confirmation, mistakenly, that he wanted to send the alert in response to a prompt, according to media reports.
The message — "BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL" — went to Hawaii residents and vacationers. It also went out to televisions and radios.
Gaynor emphasizes that Rhode Island is not running tests like the ones Hawaii has been doing — specific to a ballistic missile threat.
The state's emergency personnel are not monitoring systems for detecting inbound missiles. A global network of sensors is monitored by the North American Air Defense Command, which notifies appropriate agencies if it detects a launch.
(But Rhode Island has some experience with a bogus alert. In September, WPRI blamed hackers for a false news alert, sent through its online app, that said North Korea had launched a nuclear attack on Rhode Island.)
To launch an alert from Rhode Island's emergency ops center, even in a test, two different codes are necessary. Permission must come from Gaynor himself, a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College who served in the Marine Corps for 26 years and as Providence's emergency management director prior to his appointment.
In the event of a surprise missile attack, Gaynor says, the president or a federal agency would send the appropriate alert directly to residents.
During a crisis period, when an attack might be less of a surprise, the state might issue an alert based on information from the federal government.
Unlike in Hawaii, says Gaynor, no template messages related to ballistic missiles are even programmed right now.
The emergency ops center does have a catalog of template messages for various scenarios, including instructions prepared in the event that terrorists have launched a nuclear attack.
These draft messages are designed to be edited on the fly and tailored to specific situations. The messages are in a secure file and only a few people have the code to get in, says Gaynor.
The center's alert systems can put them on cellphones, or broadcast them on television and radio stations.
"Shut off ventilation systems and seal doors or windows until the fallout cloud has passed," says one message. "Listen for information about evacuation routes, temporary shelters, and procedures to follow," says another.
What R.I. prepares for
The Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency directs planning and training for specific emergencies based on a "Hazard Identification and Risk Assessment" that has been approved on a two-year basis but can be updated anytime.
The assessment approved in 2016 identified the following 21 hazards in three groupings:
Natural hazards: Severe winter weather including ice storms and snow; flood; high wind; extreme heat; hurricane and tropical storms; extreme cold; thunderstorm; dam failure; fire; sea-level rise; epidemic; drought; earthquake; tornado.
Human-caused hazards: Cyber-security incident; chemical incident; terrorism; biological incident, radiological incident and civil unrest.
Technological hazards: Failure within the technological infrastructure that's necessary for providing essentials such as energy, water and transportation and emergency services.
Source: Hazard and Risk Assessment, 2016, Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency
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