I wrote an article earlier this week about how we're all going to die in an earthquake this year. I'm just going to come right out and say it -- that might have been a bit of an exaggeration. Don't get me wrong, I stand by everything I wrote until a scientist who doesn't publish his or her work exclusively in the comment section on this site tells me otherwise, but still, even if "the big one" does hit sometime soon, there's a decent chance you'll come out the other side just fine.
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That's the topic of discussion on this week's Unpopular Opinion podcast ...
... where I'm joined by Cracked editor and all-around cool guy Alex Schmidt and the mayor of Podcast City, Brett Rader. We kick things off by talking about the same mega earthquakes that I swear are going to destroy Oklahoma any moment now. For the sake of continuity, I'll do the same here!
Fine, oil company apologists, let's say those earthquakes in Oklahoma really don't have anything to do with fracking and that Jesus will make them stop as suddenly as they started and everything will go back to normal in the region any day now.
When Iowa reconsiders their position on same-sex marriage, no doubt.
That doesn't change the fact that a mega earthquake nearby is a very real possibility. For that, you can thank the New Madrid Seismic Zone, a gigantic fault line that produced an earthquake in 1811 that would have killed significantly more people than the far more famous San Francisco earthquake of 1906, if only there were more people in the area to kill at the time.
So what does that mean for people in the New Madrid area today? What with there being buildings and all manner of other big city trappings there now, the death and destruction would surely be far more significant, right? That is approximately 50 percent true. The destruction would be off the charts, but I'll get to that momentarily. For now, let's talk about death.
Here's what should be mildly comforting news for people in the region (provided your friendly neighborhood wastewater disposal wells don't multiply the damage exponentially) -- a FEMA report from 2009 states that approximately 650 people would be killed in the event of a 7.7-magnitude quake in the New Madrid Seismic Zone. No, that doesn't mean the 86,000 casualties I mentioned in the Oklahoma article was a lie, it's just that casualties aren't necessarily deaths. In fact, of those thousands of casualties, approximately 75 percent would consist of minor injuries only.
So, that part is great. Chances are you'll live through a New Madrid quake if one happens while you're around. Whether you'd want to, though, is another story. As I mentioned before, death totals would be relatively small. Damage estimates are a different story. For the eight states that would be most impacted, the total damage is nearly $300 billion. That includes 715,000 buildings, which, considering this is the Midwest we're talking about, has to be just about all of them.
Do we even use those things anymore?
Before you scoff at that notion, keep in mind that it's precisely the reason why a New Madrid quake wouldn't kill a more frightening number of people. No matter how long ago the 1811 New Madrid quakes happened (our research team tells me it's approximately 203 years ago), it doesn't change the fact that there still aren't a ton of people in the area. As this report from the Missouri Department of Natural Resources points out, the areas closest to the expected epicenter are mostly rural. Granted, that's because farming is one of the main industries in the area, which means it's worth mentioning that agriculture in the area would be crippled for a good long while. Sorry.
As for major cities, St. Louis is expected to receive the most damage, followed closely by Memphis. So, good luck tracking down anything that might have been on its way to your place from FedEx if there's another quake. Depending on the package, that could be a huge bummer. On the bright side, if that's something you're sad about when this all inevitably goes down, that means you're probably not among the 650 people killed. Congratulations!
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The great thing about the Cold War was that for the most part we always knew who our enemy was and where we could find them if need be. It's a war everyone could pretend to serve in by virtue of doing nothing other than living in the United States and not revealing secrets to the Russians. As citizens, our job was mostly to shut the fuck up about stuff. That's the kind of battle I can get behind.
That, sadly, is no longer the case. I mean, it's great that we're pretending to be friends with Russia from time to time these days, but our new favorite enemy is a little harder to track down. I'm speaking, of course, about rogue terrorists, like those who planned and executed the events of 9/11. They weren't official representatives of their respective governments. We would have gone to war over it if they were!
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Instead we got over our grief by spreading democracy in Iraq. You're welcome, world.
Since then, the target of every single bit of our defense-department-funding fear has been aimed at rogue terrorists. The days of fighting the good fight by pretending you know nothing (which we're great at) are gone. We have to do things. We have to look for things now. We have to be mindful of backpacks without owners and people with fuses jutting out from the soles of their shoes. If we see something, we have to say something. It's our duty as Americans, lest we fall prey once again to the wicked intentions of the terrorists of the world.
Whoa, why is that kid's backpack so huge?
One of the most talked about threats posed by freelance terror creators is that one of them will detonate a so-called dirty bomb, which is jargon that roughly translates to "a regular bomb that also emits radiation." Think the Boston Marathon bombing, except with fallout that comes in the form of something other than Rolling Stone's decision to put a terrorist on the cover of their magazine.
Was Drake doing nothing noteworthy around this time?
Nuclear fallout, specifically, which we probably wouldn't even know was present at first. It's not like you can see it or smell it. It's just "One minute I'm standing there, the next I'm showering with a fire hose in the basement of a military base." Pretty scary stuff, right?
Well, yeah, any bomb is going to have at least some capacity to frighten a person. No matter how overstated any other threat associated with dirty bombs may be, if one explodes in your lap, it will kill you. That's what explosions do to people. That's why we walk away from them in movies. What about that radiation, though? Would it significantly increase the death toll if a regular bomb was filled with radioactive materials? Probably not, as demonstrated by the wackiest nuclear disaster story you're likely to hear all day.
While a real one has never gone off, the closest the world has come to actually seeing the events of a dirty bomb attack play out in real life happened in Goiania, Brazil, in 1987. It was there that two scrap metal scavengers broke into an abandoned radiotherapy clinic and stole the source capsule from a teletherapy machine. What's a source capsule?
This has to be close.
As it relates to radioactive materials, I'm guessing it's exactly what it sounds like, because when the junkyard owner who bought the capsule from the thieves managed to break it open, he noticed that the substance inside glowed blue in the dark. Realizing that the makings of a great party were afoot, he took the capsule back to his house and showed it to friends and family. Some of them spread the substance on their face like Carnival glitter.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
Not making that up, for the record.
That substance turned out to be cesium-137 chloride, which is, of course, highly radioactive. Part of the festivities surrounding the blue party powder included two individuals taking the leaking capsule on a city bus, thus contaminating the bus and spreading radiation around a sizable area of the city. Granted, there's no explosion, but in terms of radiation dispersal, this silly but also completely tragic story is as close as we've come to knowing what kind of havoc the radioactive fallout from a dirty bomb might be. So, what were the final numbers? In all, 28 people suffered radiation burns and, sadly, five died.
As tragic as that is, the carnage was relatively minor compared to what most of us imagine a person running around town with a leaky radiation egg is capable of inflicting. In general, the biggest threat from a dirty bomb is psychological. People would lose their shit, stock markets would fluctuate, that kind of thing. As far as physical damage goes, though, a dirty bomb isn't a whole lot more effective than a regular bomb. Sure, all of those people in Brazil might die of cancer 30 years from now, but who among us won't? You don't need a dirty bomb for that.
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The scariest thing about a global pandemic is that diseases and viruses and such have no regard for feelings, politics, or any other trivial bullshit we occupy our time obsessing over. It has one job, and that job is to make people sick. If a lot of them die, even better. I mean, it's not better better, but that's how a pandemic makes a name for itself, you know? What are you going to do?
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Get killed by something that looks like this, probably.
This is one of the scarier scenarios because, unlike an earthquake or radiation, you can't take cover when you see it coming. You won't see it. You can take all sorts of steps to be prepared before one arrives, and you can quarantine yourself in your home once you know one has arrived, but if you're on some patient-zero-catch-it-from-a-random-stranger type of shit, you'll just start getting sick without any advance warning.
Also, viruses fight back. They evolve and learn to overcome our tactics. They never stop fighting. It's scary shit, for sure. That said, while it's true that another global pandemic like the Black Death would kill a significant portion of the population, we are never going to have a pandemic like the Black Death again, because that shit happened in 1347.
This is the world's oldest Wikipedia page.
It was a different world, so much so that prevention strategies back then consisted mostly of scratching a cross above the words "Lord have mercy on us" into your front door and then hoping for the best.
Unfortunately, that's not a long way off from how the continent of Africa approaches AIDS prevention right now. That's still very much a pandemic, and that has a lot to do with places like the Republic of Congo, where the archbishop of Kinshasa, the country's capital, is credited with the following quote:
"Using condoms as a means of preventing AIDS can only lead to sexual promiscuity."
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Condoms cause sex.
Of course, if the Vatican wasn't telling their army of 1 billion followers in Africa that condoms have holes in them and are therefore useless in the fight against AIDS, quotes like that might not be such a common occurrence.
Whatever the case, that won't be the story in this country if a new pandemic hits. Yeah, we have our fair share of Bible thumpers, but what has always made America special as it relates to religious zealots is that around here, it's rare to find one who actually believes the shit they're trying to sell everyone else. If the threat of a pandemic ever becomes way too real in the states, they'll rely on modern medicine to save them just like the rest of us.
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Walgreens will protect us.
And save us it will! Not all of us, obviously, but compared to the Black Death, which killed a third of the human population, experts predict that a global pandemic reaching the United States could potentially make 30 percent of the U.S. population sick, which is a drag, but only 4 million people would be admitted to the hospital. Of those hospitalized, 2 million will die.
I admit, those are grim numbers, but at the same time, I'll take those odds over every third person I know (it will skip me) dying an untimely death any day. There are nearly 314 million people in this country. A pandemic, according to experts, would knock that number down to about 312 million. That's still pretty sad, but at the same time, it sounds a lot less scary than the movies make it out to be.
This is the biggest of all big ones, a nuclear attack on the United States. Right off the bat, I should point out that what I'm referencing here is not a scenario where we anger a legitimately powerful government to the point that they lob hundreds of missiles at all of our favorite places. We all die if that happens. Or, at the very least, most of us will wish we did. That's the stuff extinction-level events are made of, which, in turn, are what Busta Rhymes albums are made of ...
It's the one with no songs you like!
... so you know they're serious. That said, what about those aforementioned rogue terrorists? What are the chances any of us would survive if one of them got their hands on a nuclear device and detonated it in, say, Los Angeles? It would be an unspeakable tragedy, no matter what, but your odds of surviving are way higher than you probably expect.
None of this applies to the blast radius, of course. If you're within that, you are done. You probably won't even have a chance to figure out what's happening before you die. It will be swift, painless, and visually stunning. For people a mile or more outside ground zero, though, a nuclear attack would be absurdly survivable, according to a 2010 Department of Homeland Security study.
If every single person in that vicinity took absolutely no shelter following the blast, 285,000 of those people would die.
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Again, though, it's going to be damn pretty to watch.
That's bleak, but something to keep in mind is that they're referring to shelter in almost all of its available forms. If all of those people took shelter in their cars to avoid the fallout, shockingly, that estimated victim total drops all the way down to 125,000. That's still a lot, but honestly, how many of you assumed you could just wait out a nuclear attack in your vehicle?
Seriously, you'll be fine!
They say you'd need to hide for "several hours," but if it means not dying in a nuclear attack, that seems like a fair trade-off to me. Things get even more promising if all of those people could somehow make it to a basement, in which case the total drops to just 45,000 dead. That won't happen, mind you, because no one in California has a basement, but still, good to know.
Even better to know, if those people collectively made it to the basement of a heavily insulated office building, there would be no deaths from nuclear fallout. Zero.
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It will be like living at work!
To summarize, yes, the blast would still kill plenty of people, but if you can find a place to hide for a few hours, according to the Department of Homeland Security, you have a fantastic chance of surviving a nuclear attack. Granted, you'll probably get murdered for the contents of your survival kit by a horde of marauders a few days later, but how awesome will those few days be knowing you had what it took to survive a nuclear disaster?
Adam would like it a whole lot if you'd download the latest episode of his podcast and/or come see him tell jokes in person the first and third Tuesday of every month at Westside Comedy Theater in Santa Monica. Once you have all of that out of your system, follow him on Twitter and Facebook.