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Confronting the nightmare: terrorism in New Orleans

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.



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Comments (15)

Is this perhaps the article... (Below threshold)

Is this perhaps the article you read a while back?
http://www.donaldsensing.com/index.php/2005/09/16/have-i-missed-something-about-katrina-and-federal-response/

It was interesting to me to see how the response would have been different in the case of a terrorist attack.

You forgot the major factor... (Below threshold)
joe:

You forgot the major factor affecting the recovery of the region.
The local authorities would have been wiped out, allowing for a swifter decision making process.

It amazes me that people ca... (Below threshold)
NtvAmrcn:

It amazes me that people cannot see, or refuse to see, the difference from the 9/11 attack and the Katrina disaster. One is concentrated to a few buildings in NY, whereas the other covers about 200 miles of coastline that was all but literally destroyed. One was from our Islam enemy, the other is a natural disaster.

Comparing the two is so rediculous it infuriates me to hear it. I do believe the left has gone so bonkers that it might take 3 or 4 generations for them to ever have credibility again.

Jay it is funny you type th... (Below threshold)
Paul:

Jay it is funny you type this...

I recently went thru some of the hardest hit areas of New Orleans. After coming out I had a discussion with one of the big bosses at a major construction company. I made the comment to him that after seeing the destruction, if I had to pick between Katrina and nuclear weapon, I would have to do some research to see just how bad a nuclear weapon really was... It was that bad.

Knowing the geography, I'm not so convinced as you that there would be any levee breaks. For starters "just east of the Superdome" puts it right in the middle of some massive buildings which would absorb the energy.

But I'll put it to you this way... If I could be assured the levees would hold and you take long term radiation off the table, I'd take 2 nukes without a second thought.

No questions asked.

An interesting analysis.</p... (Below threshold)

An interesting analysis.

I challenge you to do another analysis.

What would happen if a terrorist in a few years got his hands on a few sticks of dynamite (trivial compared to getting their hands on a nuclear device) and then blew a few holes in the levee system while the entire city was inside it, unevacuated.

It would be much easier to do, and is one of the reasons that we shouldn't allow New Orleans to be reconstructed in the same way it is today.

The slow delay stemmed from... (Below threshold)

The slow delay stemmed from people thinking it was just another hurricane. It was. Where everything went in the dumpster was when the levee broke releasing chaos unseen in our experience. Even the levee breaks in the Upper Mississippi in 1993 (Red River) and 1997 were unlike this. Evacuees in St. Louis were far fewer and had more readily accessible high ground

Of course a nuclear bomb wo... (Below threshold)

Of course a nuclear bomb would have the additional psychological terror, causing many aid workers to stay away, and far longer-term fall out than the toxic water.

Plus Americans would conveniently blame someone, go to war & re-assure themselves that they were handling the situation. Not possible with a natural disaster.

More people die in Bangladesh in flooding every year. More people die in Africa every day. It's not that I don't feel for the NO residents, of course I do, but get some perspective.

High yield detonation effec... (Below threshold)
"Plus Americans wo... (Below threshold)
Marc:
"Plus Americans would conveniently blame someone, go to war & re-assure themselves that they were handling the situation."
WHAT!! You mean Chimpy McBusHitlerCo didn't invade Jihadist Mother Nature's home lair!!

Damn peace mongering, flowers in the hair buffoon Bush! What's the presidency come to?

/satire. Gee, that was fun.

[email protected] Norden... (Below threshold)
ed:

Hmmm.

@ Norden

1. "High yield detonation effects simulator"

Thank you! That's definitely a webpage that's worth bookmarking.

@ Jay

2. Frankly I think a much more likely scenario would involve something much easier to get and with a larger yield. A Soviet/Russian nuclear artillery shell.

I'd suggest that there were a LOT more nuclear artillery shells around than suitcase nukes, which might be nothing more than a de-cased artillery shell in a suitcase. The Soviets were extremely pro-artillery and had entire divisions of artillery on the West German border. In the Soviet doctrine every single unit larger than a platoon had it's own intrinsic artillery. In most cases these were mortars or rockets. But at battalion level and larger these included towed and self-propelled artillery. At the regiment level, and larger, each unit had an attached unit of artillery that was one size smaller.

Thus a regiment would have an artillery battalion. A division would have an artillery regiment. A corp would have an artillery division. Etc, etc etc. At one point the Warsaw Pact had about 300 divisions, of which perhaps 80 were class A active-duty frontline troops. How many were geared towards using nuclear artillery? Probably quite a few. How many nuclear artillery shells would that amount to? I only know in my nightmares thank you.

A Soviet/Russian large artillery shell, I forget the actual designation, would weigh about 1,000lbs with radiation shielding and would have a yield of anywhere from 50kt to 200kt depending. If you wanted to absolutely ensure getting past any possible radiation sensors then you'd load the thing in a boat and place it below the water line. And then you'd probably place additional shielding on top of it. The original nuclear reactor at the University of Chicago used graphite blocks, so cloth bags filled with charcoal would probably work fairly well.

Consider that just about every single major city in America has waterways next to or through them, I think you know where this is all leading.

3. Hmmm. You know every single scenario I've seen looks for either an air burst nuke or a ground burst nuke but I don't think I've ever seen a water submerged based nuke scenario. I know the US Navy did a bunch of tests, but I'll have to look for what kind of parameters were used.

If it's possible to sneak a 200kt nuclear device into NYC, would detonating it underwater generate a massive tidal wave? Would that tidal wave be more destructive than a ground burst or air burst? Particularly since those waterways are very constricted?

Worth thinking about.

As a point to consider in t... (Below threshold)
-S-:

As a point to consider in the issue of nuclear detonation(s) in/on any area, it's not just infrastructural damage/destruction that is the issue. The resulting effects are far more substantial and worse than "mere" loss of infrastrucure, not measurable by blast zone configurations, is my point.

What would happen if a t... (Below threshold)

What would happen if a terrorist in a few years got his hands on a few sticks of dynamite (trivial compared to getting their hands on a nuclear device) and then blew a few holes in the levee system while the entire city was inside it, unevacuated.

I can't speak about New Orleans' levee system, but the river levees protecting my boyhood hometown of Sacramento would require more than "a few sticks of dynamite to breach, even if there were a 200-year flood behind them.

Most in the Sacramento area are at least wide enough and well-enough made and maintained to host a two-lane road, and in some cases do actually have relatively busy state highways on them. It would take a team of demolition engineers to set sabotage them effectively.

If New Orleans levees aren't better than that, they damn sure oughta be.

A point is that a hurricane... (Below threshold)
Mikey:

A point is that a hurricane, because of the nature of federalism, means that local and state government must be the first responder, and that federal response is limited by law. This point has been discussed elsewhere in detail.

A terrorist attack is a federal matter. It would likely be a federal crime or would be classed under an invasion or military attack on the USA, thereby giving the feds the greenlight from the very beginning. The feds would not have to wait for the governor to authorize action, the feds would already have authority to move.

A terrorist attack is a whole other ball of wax from a hurricane.

A few sticks of dynamite to... (Below threshold)
Mike Boelter:

A few sticks of dynamite to breech the levees.

No way.

Sorry but anyone who thinks even a few cases of dynamite would be sufficient has been watching too much tv or action adventure movies.

Dynamite is a high explosive. Great for breaking steel girders. Poor for moving lots of earth.

As someone previous has noted most of the levees are wide enough on top to put a two lane road on top. (albeit a very narrow two lane road)

What you want to use is a lower explosive, say ammonium nitrate like that used in the Oklahoma city bombing.

Assuming a two lane dirt road on top of the levee (say 20 feet wide) you will need 5 holes, foot or so in diameter, 3 of them 8 feet deep and 2 of them 5 feet deep. 7 holes would be better with the holes arranged on either side in the slope. This assumes that both sides are accessible. Otherwise just put in the 5 holes and maybe an extra one on the dry side of the levee.

Now fill the holes to the within a foot of the top with ammonium nitrate mixed with diesel fuel, add in your detonators (the dynamite) cover with dirt, tamp down carefully and run out your leads to your power source for setting of the dynamite.

This will yield a crater about 20 feet long, 10 feet wide and 10 feet deep. If my figures are inaccurate it is because my memory of the Army explosives field manual has been some years ago but this is roughly as illustated in the book.

Of course getting the time and opportunity to casually dig a series of holes like this with out someone asking questions like: Hey, wadda ya think you're doing? is the probelm.

On a slightly different ben... (Below threshold)
epador:

On a slightly different bend in thought , I've been troubled for weeks over the public response to this disaster. After 9/11, the response nation and world wide, except for a few extremists, was fairly universally supportive, and goal oriented. The terrorists wanted to spark discord and anarchy, and got just the opposite (plus a lot of concentrated attention in Afghanistan and the Gulf region).

You would think that they might have actually reconsidered their terror tactics and goals at this point...

However, a natural disaster has sown extremely devisive politics both nationally and internationally, decidedly affected our economy at least if not more effectively, and left out national psyche more bruised and battered, with dyfunctional naming and blaming instead of constructive response hitting the headlines day in and day out.

I would think this would embolden the terrorists.

So after the first weapon of mass destruction attack against our country does occur, will we have the likes of Teddy Kennedy, Hillary and Bill, etc. to thank for encouraging our enemies?




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