Fredrickson: In wake of the Hawaii nuclear threat, how can we prepare?

Michelle Fredrickson

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38 minutes.


That’s how long people in Hawaii had to panic and react between getting an alert about an incoming ballistic missile, and learning that the alert was a mistake.

What can a person do in 38 minutes? Most spent that time panicking, finding a place to hide, or being completely unsure of what to do.

The situation in Hawaii raised one very good question for everyone reading that story: What would I do if I were in this situation?

It’s not impossible, after all. With past alerts from the federal government putting Denver as a possible target for North Korean missiles, it is smart for everybody to prepare ahead of time.

I tried to do some research to find out what I would do if I woke up and saw that alert on my phone. Most disaster preparedness articles recommended getting into a designated shelter or a basement. This struck me as somewhat unhelpful, because we live in a college town where many students live in dorms or high-level apartment buildings and don’t have basements.

I decided to reach out to the Larimer County Office of Emergency Management (OEM) to find out what to do in a situation that would seem paralyzing.

Lori Hodges, director of the Larimer County OEM, said there is a high level of fear around ballistic missile attacks and as a result of that, many people think there is no way to prepare for one. But this isn’t true.

“In reality, there are always measures that people can take to be better prepared, no matter what the situation. In this case, a shelter-in-place response would be best,” Hodges wrote in an email.

A shelter-in-place is a form of disaster response that is essentially the opposite of an evacuation. Get somewhere safe, and stay there.

The best places to go are places with no windows. Underground is usually safest. A basement, bunker, or other ground-level or below windowless room will do. Hodges recommended everyone think about the possibility ahead of time and find a place nearby that could be an effective shelter. Tornado shelters, which are spread out on the CSU campus as well, are good shelter points. These tornado shelters are often in bathrooms, because they don’t have windows and are more insulated from the outside world. They are clearly marked with signs in CSU buildings.


For individual apartment buildings and dorms, every structure is different. Everyone should spend some time thinking about whether their place of residence fits the bill for a safe place to shelter, and if not, finding somewhere close by that does.

In my building, there aren’t really any areas close to the ground without windows except for the bathrooms on the first floor, which are partially underground. If I were in this situation I would either go to my neighbor’s and stay in the bathroom, or get to the first floor of the LSC, which is quite close to me, and stay in the tornado shelters.

To know when to take action, Hodges strongly encouraged everybody to sign up for the OEM’s emergency warning system, Larimer Emergency Telephone Authority (LETA) which distributes up-to-date information via calls and texts. Sign up for LETA at This is something everyone should do. The information given out in the event of an emergency will be invaluable for quick, decisive action.

Additionally, everyone should buy a weather radio ahead of time. These are extremely useful when the cell towers go down, which Hodges said often happens in large-scale emergencies. I can speak to the usefulness of these – once when I was a teenager, my power was out for three weeks and we were essentially trapped by fallen trees and power lines. Cell phones died in a day or two, and we got all the information about what was happening in the outside world via that old weather radio. They are very useful things to keep around.

Another way to prepare in advance is to make a disaster preparedness kit. While the federal government recommends a 3-day kit, Hodges said for Colorado it is wiser to plan for a week. Read my previous column on disaster preparedness for information about what should go into that kit.

The more prepared the population is, the easier it is for emergency management officials to get a handle on the situation and keep everyone apprised and up-to-date. Emergency hotlines tend to get overwhelmed by the number of people calling for help, and a prepared population helps them do their jobs.

“The more you have a plan and have the supplies that are needed, the better you will be able to manage through the first few days of an event,” Hodges said. “This allows emergency managers to get better control of information and needs and to set systems in place for the event.”

The world is scary. The situation in Hawaii proved that. The more prepared people are for every eventuality, the less scary a potential disaster becomes.

“Education is key,” Hodges said. Learn about your area, your hazards and available systems to create the best plan for this hazard as well as any others.”

Michelle Fredrickson can be reached at or online at @mfredrickson42