Hal Kempfer, a noted international security expert, is getting a roomful of California public health officials and emergency responders to think about the unthinkable – a nuclear bomb exploding at the port of Long Beach, about four miles away.
His message – coming on the same day North Korea threatened to reduce the mainland United States to “ashes and darkness” and then launched a ballistic missile over Japan – is unvarnished and uncompromising: get ready, because we all need to prepare for what comes after.
“A lot of people will be killed,” he said, “but a large percentage of the population will survive. They will be at risk and they will need help.”
Most likely, Kempfer tells his audience, if the device is fired from North Korea or smuggled in by North Korean agents, it wouldn’t be the sort of high-yield weapon that planners worried about during the cold war, with the potential to wipe out most life and civilization across the Los Angeles region and send radioactive materials halfway across the American continent.
Rather, it’s likely to be a Hiroshima-sized bomb – large enough to obliterate everything within a square-mile radius and kill tens of thousands of people, either immediately or through the lingering effects of radiation. But still leaving millions of survivors across the region who would need help.
“We’re talking about smaller North Korean things,” Kempfer emphasized, though the word “smaller” sounds very far from reassuring. “This is not your traditional nuclear apocalypse scenario.”
Kempfer, a retired marines lieutenant colonel, is a charismatic speaker, with a keen understanding of the need for humor to leaven the grimness of the subject matter.
And so he talked through what would and would not be left standing after an attack on the port – which, together with its neighbor in San Pedro, is by far the busiest maritime trading hub in the United States and a key component of the global trading system.
He talks about the port and downtown Long Beach being “toast” – no exaggeration, since the blast wave is likely to vaporize everything in its immediate path. But the city health department, the Long Beach airport and fire department might not be; they are all somewhat protected by a hilly area that is likely to halt the initial blast wave. And so the city can, tentatively, think about setting up a center of emergency operations.