It was a bright, clear morning not in any way but one different from any other mid-February morning. The whole city beginning the long wait for the first signs of spring, the only hope being the fading memory of the last. But despite there being no physical signs it was different from any other February morning anyone had experienced, ever.
There was fear in the air, palpable fear. An hour to go and yet with the Sun barely over the Eastern horizon the jam of traffic headed out of the city to the North was worse than any rush hour in memory, and flowing in the wrong direction! The emergency meeting held in city hall two days ago combined with the continual blather on the radio ever since had finally broken through the facade of bravado, or denial, or just plain disbelief for a surprising number of families. Mostly families. The singles and others without kids, and the curious I suppose, had, for the most part, decided to ride it out in place.
The civil defense authorities, of course, were pretty confused themselves. They had never before issued such a warning and they had a pretty ragged story at best. Especially at first. The announcement on the radio and TV that there would be an impact and that there would be a public meeting to brief people on what to expect and how to protect themselves was pretty widely treated as a joke of some kind. And even after repeated appeals to attend the briefings at local high schools, the attendance was pretty sparse at most.
Nor was their story very believable. At first. A bright contrail coming out of the Eastern sky just to the right of the sun and then the head of the trail exploding, perhaps several times, in one or more extremely bright flashes, before fading out to the southwest. Don’t look at it! Why? How bright is extremely bright!? What do you mean, you don’t know? Then, many seconds or even a minute of so later a terrific BOOM… a shock wave would arrive and you might be knocked over. Certainly windows will blow in and shatter glass, so don’t be anywhere near a window. Well where do we go? Do we go down into our basements?? Do we run outdoors? In the freezing cold? If we board up our windows will they survive? How about opening them? No answers. Just blank stares and shrugs. Thanks.
Safest course of action? Leave the city. What!? Well where do we go? What about our valuables and homes? Are they going to be protected? Well when will you know? If we have to decide in a hurry, how do we make such a decision? And how far do we go anyway? Will our homes survive? Maybe?? What kind of an answer is that?
Of course the information got a bit more definitive after those first briefings. If one listened carefully, that is, to the “official” announcements and not the incredible speculation and craziness from damned near every pseudo-authority spreading everything from “the whole thing is a joke” to “no sense running; we’re all dead anyway”.
So many people obviously waited until this morning before making up their minds that it isn’t a joke and that they’ll head out 50-100 km to the North and watch. Some put their valuables in the basement; some in the car with them. The police claim that they will be on duty and protecting the neighborhoods against any looting. After all, the event will be over in a few moments, as suddenly as it happens. People will be flooding back into town almost immediately to see what happened… if anything! So the cops might not have too hard a time against looters.
Mostly the police, and the ambulance drivers will be gathering up people who, despite all efforts to the contrary, will run over to the windows and look out to see what the hell that big flash was! As the man said… no problem looking… just wait for a minute until the shock wave passes (or knocks you off your feet!) and then go over and look out. Through the hole in the wall… maybe.
Anyway… “shelter in place” or “evacuate” better make sure to get the kids dressed in their snow suits because it might just be a long time before any rooms with South facing windows (or any direction??) hold in heat again. Except, of course, if like me you’ve already bought spare glass and caulking compound at the hardware outlet during the mad shopping crush yesterday!
So I’m ready. I’m staying put for the big show. I’ve got my thermos of hot coffee and I’ve even got a bottle of vodka with me down here in the basement just in case Uncle Vanya gets back with the rest of the family and the stash upstairs is no longer intact. It ought to be a great show. I’ve heard that there are even tourists… “eco-tourists!!”… in the air, headed our way! Whatta joke! Paying thousands of $ to get here from Los Angeles and here we are with guaranteed front row seats!
Something like this hypothetical will be happening to real people when the first prediction of a Chelyabinsk-sized impact is about to occur. It will likely emerge out of a set of small distributed telescopes that detect asteroids about to impact. Their observations will pass through the current near-Earth asteroid network (ref.neo.jpl.nasa.gov/programs/intro.html) and on to the currently forming IAWN (International Asteroid Warning Network, ref. www.minorplanetcenter.net/IAWN/) and from there into the world’s jumble of national and local disaster response agencies. And thence to the relevant public. It will likely not, the first few times, be a pretty picture.
Hence the efforts of Asteroid Day (ref. www.asteroidday.org) to begin preparing the public with the basic knowledge almost totally missing in our collective experience. The basics are simple; shelter in place (stay away from windows!) or evacuate if legitimate authority recommends. But understanding a bit about the context of asteroid impacts is both interesting and perhaps important in building toward a successful public response to the eventual warnings that will issue over time.
READ PART TWO