5th ed./5 June 2001
by Wm. Robert Johnston
copyright 1983, 1999, 2001

How powerful are modern nuclear weapons? The following describes the effects of the use of a single intercontinental ballistic missile against the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas. This is not a description of the effects of a nuclear war: it is assumed that no other nuclear weapons are used anywhere in the world (not that the U.S. would not go to war over the loss of the Valley!). However, this may be about what the Soviets had in mind for the Valley had an all-out nuclear war occurred in the 1980s.

A note on how to read this: the discussion of the explosion's effects in Brownsville lists many locations throughout the city (each in bold print), so the reader may concentrate on locations of interest. The weapon described here, the SS-17, was retired in 1994; since 1983, the SS-17s in use had slightly smaller warheads than what is described here. This description uses population figures and conditions for spring 1993.

Spread in the woods near Vvpolzovo, Russia (halfway between Moscow and St. Petersburg), is a series of underground concrete missile silos, each covered by a concrete cover and surrounded by three security fences. At 7:24 PM local time (11:24 AM CDT), one of these covers suddenly slides open on remote command from men in an underground shelter 10 kilometers (6 miles) away. Three minutes later compressed gases eject a missile 24 meters (80 feet) long from this silo. This intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), known in Russia as the RS-16 and in the U.S. as the SS-17 Spanker, ignites its engines in mid-air and accelerates upward, towards targets 9,600 km (6,000 miles) away. Half the size of a space shuttle solid rocket booster, the missile proceeds upward with continual course corrections, attracting the attention of thousands of Russians. Two minutes after launch the first stage falls away, and the second stage separates about a minute later. Now beyond the atmosphere, 300 km (200 mi.) over Finland, the payload bus--about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle--is left to coast the rest of the way to the target. A shroud is thrown off to expose four cone-shaped warheads, each 2 meters (6 feet) long and 75 centimeters (2.5 feet) wide at the base. The warheads are mounted on the payload bus, which fires small rockets to reorient itself before ejecting the first warhead. This is repeated once a minute until all four warheads are separated. At 11:34 CDT, about 700 km (450 mi.) over the Norwegian Sea, the warheads are now spreading out from the discarded payload bus, coasting silently through space towards their targets at a speed of 23,000 km per hour (14,000 mph).

Within a minute of the missile's launch, a U.S. Air Force DSP satellite 36,000 km (22,000 mi.) away detected the missile's exhaust and began transmitting data to NORAD (North American Defense Command) headquarters near Boulder, Colorado, where the Air Force watches 24 hours a day for nuclear attack. By 11:31 CDT the NORAD commander is in contact with the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and two other national command centers when an early warning radar in England detects the missile. The commander reports "high confidence" that a missile attack is underway, and work begins to locate the President for a decision. By 11:44, when the warheads are 1,200 km (750 mi.) over Greenland, strategic forces are being alerted. In the next few minutes, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is alerted along with the military to prepare for emergency response and communications begin between Washington and Moscow. The population of south Texas cannot be warned in the time remaining. No warning system exists, and no defensive system has been built.

At 11:59:35 AM CDT five "meteors" appear over south Texas. The skies are mostly clear this spring weekday, and these meteors are bright enough to see in the daylight. A few unfortunate people are watching the warheads as they reach their preprogrammed points: one reaches the ground near the McAllen State Bank tower in McAllen at 12:00:02; another reaches the ground at the Coast Guard Station near Raymondville at 11:59:54; a third reaches the ground near Valle Vista Mall in Harlingen at 11:59:57; and the fourth reaches a point 2 kilometers (6,500 feet) over Homer Hanna High School in Brownsville at 12:00:00 noon.

In the Brownsville warhead signals from both radar and air pressure sensors prompt an electronics package to begin detonation: time is now measured in microseconds--millionths of a second. An electrical impulse is sent and divided to travel down 60 different wires to the "primary". After 0.003 microseconds these impulses each reach a pair of detonators, positioned at sixty points on a hollow sphere of high explosives. The explosives begin to detonate radially from each detonator. The high explosive sphere is a mixture of curved shapes of two different types of explosives so that the sixty separate explosions converge into a perfectly spherical explosive wave travelling inward--with the force of a third of a ton of dynamite. After 10 microseconds the explosive wave begins to compress successive hollow spheres of various metals. In 3 more microseconds this compression wave has crossed an empty layer to reach the heart of the warhead--a sphere of uranium 12 centimeters (5 inches) in diameter.

Uranium is radioactive: ten times every second an atom in this sphere decays, releasing atomic fragments and high-energy gamma radiation. The explosive wave reaches the uranium and compresses it to a fluid mass 5 cm (2 inches) in diameter. At this time, 19 microseconds after detonation, a small particle accelerator in the front of the warhead fires neutrons into the uranium sphere. The first of these neutrons is absorbed by a uranium atom and promptly causes it to split or decay. Before now, the atomic fragments emitted generally left the sphere; now, the uranium atoms are so tightly packed that these particles tend to find other uranium atoms and cause them to decay, and the resulting particles do the same, and so on. This chain reaction would cycle about 60 times in the next microsecond, but to increase the efficiency a small amount of compressed deuterium-tritium gas is now injected into a hollow in the center of the uranium core. This increases the cycling rate to 80 times in the next 0.1 microseconds. This 5 cm (2 inch) sphere of uranium now has a temperature of 40,000,000° F (20,000,000° C)--hotter than the center of the Sun. The gamma rays given off by the nuclear reactions radiate through the exploding mass at the speed of light and are absorbed by the weapon casing, 0.003 microseconds later. The casing is heated and reradiates the energy as x-rays, which in turn are absorbed by the other key component of the warhead--the "secondary".

The secondary includes a cylinder of lithium-deuteride--25 cm (10 inches) in diameter and 80 cm (30 inches) long--at the rear of the warhead, with a radiation shield protecting it from direct radiation from the primary. This cylinder is surrounded by a 2.5 cm (1 inch)-thick layer of depleted uranium; it also has a rod of uranium in the center. The x-rays reradiated from the warhead casing heat and compress the outer wrapping of depleted uranium. In 0.1 microseconds this crushes the lithium-deuteride to a cylinder only 6 cm (2 in.) in diameter. At this point, neutrons from the primary arrive at that inner rod of uranium, coming through a hole in the radiation shield. When this happens, a nuclear chain reaction occurs in the rod, superheating the lithium-deuteride from within. Neutrons from the chain reaction strike lithium atoms and split them into helium and tritium atoms. Temperatures and pressures are high enough that colliding tritium and deuterium atoms (both forms of hydrogen) merge into helium atoms instead of bouncing off each other. This fusion reaction--the same that powers the Sun--lasts another microsecond before the energy explodes the deuterium outward and ends the reaction. At this point, 20 microseconds after detonation, the temperature is 600,000,000° F (300,000,000° C)--twenty times hotter than the center of the Sun. The last step occurs in that depleted uranium wrapping: neutrons from the fusion reactions split uranium atoms there, and in this last tenth of a microsecond the energy released is nearly doubled.

At 0.000002 seconds after detonation, the process is complete; the outside of the warhead is just beginning to disintegrate from within. Gamma radiation from the nuclear reactions has already radiated up to 400 meters (1,300 feet) in every direction. A region of space over Brownsville the size of a truck is now as hot as the center of the Sun, and contains the equivalent explosive energy of 900 kilotons--900,000 tons of TNT. The four warheads (each of 900 kiloton yield) combined have peaked the explosive power of all the bombs and shells used everywhere in the world in World War II; their explosive force would be equal to giving a truckload of dynamite (4 tons) to every man, woman, and child in the Valley.

This enormous release of gamma radiation is absorbed by the surrounding air, heating it to a point where it releases radiation itself. This process forms a fireball--a glowing ball of gas--and decreases the energy of the radiation: from gamma rays to x-rays to ultraviolet (what causes sunburn), visible light, infrared (heat radiation), and radio waves. An electromagnetic pulse--a very brief pulse of radio waves--is emitted, collecting in metal objects and creating a power surge which damages or destroys electronics. In 0.00005 seconds nearly every computer chip in Brownsville is ruined. In 0.0007 seconds the fireball is 130 meters (400 feet) across. Continuing to expand at many times the speed of sound, the fireball forms two distinct regions: the center remains extremely hot while the temperature of the outer part falls as it pushes the surrounding air away. The heat radiated by the outer layer produces an initial flash of light as bright as the Sun to an observer 40 km (25 miles) away at 0.005 seconds after detonation. The fireball brightness decreases until 0.08 seconds after detonation, when the fireball is as bright as the Sun to an observer 7.5 km (4.5 miles) away, and breakaway occurs: a blast wave separates from the fireball's surface. The blast wave is an expanding sphere of highly compressed and fast moving air--similar to a sonic boom but much more powerful. Initially the blast wave travels at ten times the speed of sound. The wave pushes the air away before it so that a partial vacuum is created behind it. As a result, the passing wave produces enormous pressures and severe momentary outward winds, followed by less intense inward winds. The blast wave is reflected from the ground and thereby reinforces itself. It was partly cloudy over Brownsville, but now the blast seems to push the clouds away. At a distance of 9 km (5.5 miles) it finally drops to the speed of sound, 19 seconds after detonation.

At breakaway (0.08 seconds after detonation) the fireball is 1.0 km (0.6 miles) across with a surface temperature of 1,300° C (2,300° F). Now that the fireball is no longer pushing the blast wave before it, the outer layer is reheated by the interior to reach a uniform temperature. As the fireball expands and rewarms, a second flash begins. The fireball now begins to release the large amount of thermal energy it contains, with unpleasant consequences in the immediate vicinity. At 1.07 seconds after detonation the fireball is 1.8 km (1.1 miles) in diameter and has a surface temperature of 6,000° C (10,800° F)--greater than the surface temperature of the Sun. It would appear 500 times as bright as the Sun to an observer 10 km (6 miles) away. So far the fireball has radiated 22% of the thermal energy that it contains. The fireball has started to rise rapidly, like a hot air balloon, and its surface temperature and brightness begin to decline. However, it continues to expand until at 8 seconds after detonation it reaches its maximum size of 2.1 km (1.3 miles). With a surface temperature of 2,100° C (3,800° F) the fireball is glowing red, still 15 times as bright as the Sun at a distance of 10 km (6 miles); at this point 90% of the thermal radiation has been emitted.

Thus the Brownsville detonation (at 12:00:00.0 noon, 2 kilometers/6,500 feet over Hanna HS) devastates the city. At ground zero, Hanna High School, heat from the intense light from overhead ignites any people caught outdoors (who have been watching the Raymondville explosion for the last 6 seconds) and causes cars to burst into flame in the first tenth of a second. At 12:00:01.3 the school's walls explode (as moisture in the concrete becomes superheated), cars vaporize, and the school is enveloped by steam from the boiling resaca in front of the school. About 20 cm (8 inches) of the resaca boil away by 12:00:01.9 when anything left of the school is pulverized by the arriving blast wave. Over the next few seconds the ground and all remaining debris are melted and fused.

At the Boca Chica Tower, Olivera Intermediate School, and the U.S. Post Office on Los Ebanos, 1.8 km (1.1 miles) from Hanna, people and cars ignite at 12:00:00.8; steel and glass melt and concrete explodes at 12:00:02.8; and at 12:00:03.1 the blast wave completely destroys all three buildings.

At the First Baptist Church, 2.4 km (1.5 miles) from Hanna, people are instantly blinded, and those exposed have blistering burns at 12:00:00.1. At 12:00:00.5 some fires start and car tires melt; at 12:00:01.0 everything exposed that could possibly burn does and exposed persons ignite; at 12:00:02.0 car metal melts, windows soften, and some people shielded from the fireball's light have received fatal burns from the glare. Other than these effects of the flash the explosion is silent until the blast arrives, levelling the church building and killing any survivors at 12:00:03.9. Some of the rubble and burning debris is blown past St. Joseph's Academy at 1.4 times the speed of sound. By 12:00:07.2 the winds have reversed direction and begin blowing inward at well over hurricane force for several seconds.

At Sunrise Mall and Porter High School, 2.9 km (1.8 miles) from Hanna, some fires and fatal burns are produced at 12:00:00.6. At 12:00:01.0 most exposed combustibles and persons ignite; at 12:00:04.8 the blast destroys both buildings--however, some of the twisted steel remnants are left behind.

At Valley International Country Club, Gladys Porter Zoo, and former Valley Regional Hospital, all 3.3 km (2.1 miles) from Hanna, all exposed persons receive fatal burns and some fires start at 12:00:00.7. At 12:00:01.1 painted surfaces explode and most zoo animals ignite (dark animals first); at 12:00:05.6 the blast destroys all buildings at these locations and blows burning palm trees through the air.

At Perkins Middle School, Russell and Castenada Elementary Schools, Lincoln Park, Sam's Stadium, and the Cameron County Courthouse, 4.0 km (2.5 miles) from Hanna, some fires start and exposed persons find their skin melting off at 12:00:00.7, these people ignite at 12:00:01.2, and all exposed combustibles are burning by 12:00:01.7. At 12:00:07.2 the blast arrives: a few buildings escape complete destruction and are at least intact enough to be recognized as structures. In these buildings are the closest persons to Hanna to survive more than a few minutes; however, these few survivors are either trapped in these collapsed and burning buildings while some are out of doors with severe injuries.

At Pace High School, Vela Intermediate School, and the University of Texas at Brownsville, 4.4 km (2.7 miles) from Hanna, people ignite and cars explode at 12:00:01.3; at 12:00:08.4 the blast leaves buildings at both sites nearly destroyed and flattens the Public Utilities Board water tower near UT-B, dousing some flames.

Only 1% of the people at the Gateway Bridge and the trainyard near Amigoland Mall 4.7 km (2.9 miles) from Hanna survive more than a few minutes. At 12:00:00.8 the ties on the troublesome Amigoland railroad tracks ignite. On the Gateway Bridge at 12:00:01.3 people ignite, cars explode, and the asphalt melts; the Rio Grande River below begins to boil. At 12:00:08.7 the blast wave destroys railroad vehicles near Amigoland and moderately damages the Gateway Bridge. The bridge does not collapse but becomes unsafe to use; meanwhile, burning cars waiting to cross from Brownsville are blown across the river into Matamoros, as is debris from the Stillman House and other buildings. All other bridges and expressway spans closer to Hanna than the Gateway Bridge (including most within the Brownsville city limits), however, are collapsed.

At the PUB power plant and Amigoland Mall, 5.1 km (3.2 miles) from Hanna, people ignite at 12:00:01.5 and the blast partially destroys these buildings at 12:00:09.6. A few people in isolated parts of the collapsed, burning mall are still alive at this point.

At Rivera High School, the Brownsville/South Padre Island International Airport terminal, Garza Elementary School, and Rio Del Sol subdivision, 6.1 km (3.8 miles) from Hanna, the intense light starts some fires and causes blistering burns on exposed people by 12:00:00.9. At 12:00:01.1 any flesh in sight of the fireball chars and tires melt; people ignite, aircraft burn, and massive fires start at 12:00:02.0. Again, there is no wind or sound associated with the flash--other than the sound of fires and such. Survivors have time to register shock before 12:00:12.3 when the blast arrives, still surpassing the speed of sound, with an outward wind speed of 400 kilometers per hour (250 mph)--over three times hurricane force. Much of the Rivera High School building collapses eastward, crushing survivors; burning cars are blown into each other and sometimes overturned. The same happens at the airport terminal building; aircraft outdoors are completely destroyed. At 12:00:16.2 the outward winds stop and begin blowing back towards Hanna, at gale force; this fans surviving fires and spreads burning fuel around at the airport. After 12:00:20 the winds blow outward again, finally dying out.

At Yturria Elementary School, 6.9 km (4.3 miles) from Hanna, the blast arrives at 12:00:14.7. Throughout the area within this distance of Hanna, most combustibles (including human flesh) ignite, all houses are flattened, and all other buildings are partially or completely destroyed.

At the Port of Brownsville and Lopez High School, 8.4 km (5.2 miles) from Hanna, some fires and blistering burns develop by 12:00:01, many fires and fatal burns develop by 12:00:02, and cars explode by 12:00:11. The blast arrives at 12:00:19, partially destroying houses and tank of burning oil, making other buildings unusable without repairs, damaging surviving cars and trucks, blowing down most trees, and leaving ships in the middle of the main harbor usable. To a distance of 11 km (7 miles) of Hanna--including all of Brownsville, Olmito, and Matamoros--many fires and some fatal burns are produced by 12:00:02, fires enormous in both size and quantity have developed by 12:00:14, and by 12:00:27 the blast damages all buildings, making some unusable, moderately damages TV and radio towers, and blows down power lines.

A third immediate effect in addition to flash and blast is prompt radiation, including the high energy gamma radiation and the particles from atoms altered within the warhead during detonation. This was the source of radiation injury in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, in the case of the Brownsville warhead (60 times larger than the Hiroshima bomb) these radiations are absorbed by the atmosphere before they reach anyone surviving the other effects. For example, people at Hanna who were killed 2 seconds after the explosion had received radiation that would have caused death in 48 hours. The closest people to survive more than a few minutes received a dose about three times what they got from natural sources in the last year, or about a hundredth of what it would take to produce any sign of illness.

The effects from the Brownsville warhead drop off beyond the city limits. Since the fireball emits 93% of its thermal energy by 12:00:10, the blast arrives well after the flash is over. At Los Fresnos and Rancho Viejo, 14.5 km (9 miles) from Hanna, trees ignite and tires ignite and melt. Anyone looking towards Brownsville is temporarily blinded for a few seconds or minutes. People outdoors who do not take cover from the flash within five seconds find their clothing on fire and their skin melting off. At 12:00:38 the blast knocks down a third of the burning trees, slightly damages most buildings, leaves wood frame houses unusable without repairs, but leaves motor vehicles shielded from the flash usable. Anyone at a window facing Brownsville when the blast arrives is seriously injured by glass shards propelled at 60 kilometers per hour (40 mph). People standing outdoors are knocked off their feet, can stand up again in a few seconds, are knocked down again as the winds blow inward, and hear a deafening roar through the entire affair. In San Benito, Bayview, and Laguna Vista 26 km (16 mi.) away the fireball still reaches an apparent brightness 700 times greater than the Sun. People facing Brownsville are temporarily blinded; many gazing directly at the explosion receive permanent eye damage. Some exposed people receive a sunburn. The explosion is silent for over a minute (dangerously enticing people to windows); the blast arrives at 12:01:11, blowing in windows and doors, cracking their frames, and causing plaster damage. At Port Isabel the blast arrives at 12:01:27. Planes are flyable without repairs at Harlingen Industrial Airport and Port Isabel/Cameron County Airport. At South Padre Island and Harlingen, 37 km (23 miles) from Hanna, a few sunbathers manage a 10-second sunburn, many more will be blinded for a few seconds or minutes. The west-bound lanes of the Causeway fill with accidents as drivers lose vision briefly. Not until 12:01:43 does sound and blast arrive; windows and doors are blown in, small cracks appear in walls and wood frames, and people are knocked down.

The Raymondville warhead detonates at 11:59:54 AM, 400 meters (1,300 feet) from its target, the Coast Guard station north of town; the McAllen warhead detonates at 12:00:02 PM, a similar distance from the McAllen State Bank Tower. Both have effects comparable to the Brownsville warhead, but since they are detonated at ground level a large portion of their energy is absorbed by the ground. Within one second of each detonation the expanding fireball and blast wave launches 9 million tons of soil into the air to blast out a crater. The crater from each explosion is 350 meters (1,150 feet) across (almost large enough to contain Sunrise Mall, or four football fields end-to-end), 70 meters (230 feet) deep (four times as deep as the height of the Boca Chica Tower), and has a rim 17 meters (55 feet) high (as high as the Boca Chica Tower. A shock wave travels through the ground from each crater, faster than the blast wave in the air. (Incidentally, the missile silo from which the SS-17 was launched would survive as close as 300 meters (1,000 feet) from the point of impact.) The fireballs produced by both explosions reach a maximum diameter of 1.8 miles (2.8 km), vaporize anything on the ground within them, and absorb soil and rock blasted out of the crater along with vaporized buildings and people. As far as 4 km (2.5 miles) from both explosions, the ground shock and flash kick up a cloud of smoke and dust high above any buildings just before the blast wave destroys them. The flash and blast effects from each explosion extend to distances 87% and 68% as great, respectively, as the distances similarly affected by the Brownsville explosion.

Something goes wrong in the Harlingen warhead, however. An electronic component in the ten-year-old warhead fails, and the warhead does not detonate. The warhead strikes a parking lot at Valle Vista Mall at a speed of 7.5 km (4.5 miles) per second. The sheer speed gives the 700-kilogram (320-pound) warhead the energy of 5 tons of dynamite. The high explosives in the warhead detonate, but not effectively, so no nuclear detonation occurs. The warhead is vaporized and a crater 12 meters (40 feet) across is blasted out of the pavement. Structural damage to the adjacent part of the mall results. As survivors rush to aid the injured or gaze at the three other explosions, they expose themselves to the toxic cloud rising from the impact: inhaling the warhead's vaporized uranium will eventually cause lung injury to some.

The three explosions combine to affect a much larger area. At a distance of 40 miles (60 km) from the explosions some accidents result as drivers are distracted by the flash, and when the blast arrives (nearly three minutes later) all glass windows are shattered and some cracks appear in plaster. As far away as 50 miles (80 km) from the explosions--this includes most of Texas south of a line from Laredo to Kingsville--the blast breaks some windows and knocks some items inside houses off shelves. In Corpus Christi the three flashes are still brighter than the Sun, and the four blast waves can be felt when they arrive between 12:07 and 12:10. In San Antonio a bright glow is observed on the southern horizon from 11:59:54 to 12:00:10 and three loud rumbling noises are heard--each lasting about 10 seconds--from 12:16 to 12:20. While they are difficult to see beyond San Antonio because they occur during the daytime, the three explosions are heard by 12:24 in Austin, by 12:25 in Houston, and by 12:31 in Waco.

The three cooling fireballs, glowing red, continue to rise and expand over the Valley, dragging trails of smoke and dust beneath them. Each fireball rises 5 km (3 miles) in the first 30 seconds. By 12:02:00 they are the familiar mushroom clouds, no longer glowing but still reddish in hue. By 12:04 the tops of the clouds are 19 km (12 miles) high, well into the stratosphere. By 12:06 the clouds have cooled enough that moisture near the clouds condenses into water clouds and the mushroom clouds turn white. At 12:10 the clouds are 17 km (10.5 miles) across and 8 km (5 miles) from top to bottom. Even beyond Corpus Christi the mushroom clouds show a impressive, complex wrapping of layers of clouds. In the devastated regions below, however, they have blotted out the Sun and created near darkness. By 12:30 they expand to 25 miles (40 km) across and have clearly moved downwind.

The initial effects are past. A region 3 km (2 miles) across about each ground zero has been cleared and fused into glass. Within 11 km (7 miles) of Hanna a semi-continuous fire is emerging, and similarly within 9 km (6 miles) of the other two explosions. Dust and debris begin falling from the sky over the devastated areas, as does a black rain (produced when atmospheric moisture superheated by the explosions recondenses on the plentiful dust and smoke particles). As the clouds are blown east-northeast at 50 km (30 miles) per hour, they are followed by enormous plumes of smoke. Besides this, thunderstorms begin to develop over the explosion sites. The black rain lasts several hours, and some areas receive a few centimeters (or inches) of rain--however, this does little to help the areas that are worst off.

By 12:15 the Emergency Broadcast System is informing any listening Texans about the explosions. The federal government is preparing military resources to evaluate damage and provide emergency response. As far away as Corpus Christi emergency crews have their hands full dealing with automobile accidents as well as some degree of panic. In Falfurrias and Sarita these problems are joined by light blast damage. Within 40 km (25 miles) of the explosions, there are losses of power and communications, scattered fires, other types of injuries, and many panicked people trying to flee the area. Within 12 miles (20 km) the damage is too widespread for anything more than piecemeal rescue activities to occur.

At 11:59 the Valley had a population of 797,000 and Brownsville contained 135,000 people. At 2:00 PM the Valley's population is 449,000 (including 104,000 injured seriously enough to require hospitalization under normal conditions), and only 1,700 people from Brownsville survive. A total of 568,000 have been killed and 310,000 injured in Texas and Mexico.

In Matamoros and southern Brownsville conditions allow the fires to become especially intense. As hot air rises over this area, air is drawn in from the surroundings. The fire, feeding itself in this fashion, becomes a firestorm--a combined windstorm and intense fire. Inward winds exceed 300 km (200 miles) per hour at the edges, and temperatures within the 7 km (4 mile)-wide firestorm area reach several thousand degrees. Had anyone been in bomb shelters in this area, they would now be killed as the firestorm sucks the air out of the shelters. Tornadoes are spawned along the edges until the firestorm ends the next morning. Meanwhile, the Valley fires in general have produced other problems. By 4:00 the smoke plumes are 200 km (120 miles) long and have caused a drastic drop in temperatures below. In many areas the black rain is replaced by large dirty hailstones. Within areas 50 km (30 miles) wide reaching 160 km (100 miles) downwind of the explosions people are endangered by smoke and toxic chemicals from the massive fires (this includes Harlingen and South Padre Island). The Raymondville crater, initially extending 26 meters (90 feet) below sea level, cools off with the McAllen crater. The day after the explosions water begins seeping into both craters and they soon become highly radioactive lakes. In several days the city-sized fires have ceased, although some smaller fires persist for weeks.

In the meantime, the Emergency Broadcast System since shortly after the explosions has been issuing warnings heard by few of the people who need to heard them--warnings about fallout. When the two groundburst fireballs absorbed large quantities of dust and vaporized material, some of it became radioactive. This material was carried into the upper atmosphere and begins settling to the ground underneath the mushroom clouds within minutes. The fallout from the Brownsville explosion was less severe since the fireball only contained some smoke and debris from the fires below (plus air and vaporized warhead). By 12:10 the black rain within 15 km (10 miles) of the two groundbursts is accompanied by a material with the appearance of light snow; this continues until 2:00. In other areas the fallout takes the form of a thin filmy substance. It begins falling by 12:10 in Brownsville and the McAllen area, 12:25 in Port Isabel, and 12:55 in Harlingen, and lasts from one to two hours in these cities. The fallout emits radiation which damages the cells of nearby living organisms. In fact, near McAllen and Raymondville where snow-like particles fall, if these particles fall on skin and are not brushed off they soon cause a burning sensation on that patch of skin. The Emergency Broadcast System advises people to stay put, stay indoors, and take protective action against fallout radiation. Few people who need this information hear or heed it--many are outdoors evacuating, heading home, or looking for family members.

Survivors outdoors in the devastated areas around the two groundburst sites are incapacitated by 2:30; the large dose they receive does direct damage to the central nervous system, causing convulsions, coma, and death within a week. Within strips 160 km (100 miles) long and 25 km (15 miles) wide stretching downwind of each groundburst--including Combes, the larger cities of Hidalgo County, and most of Willacy County--people outdoors develop severe radiation sickness by sunset. Radiation sickness is the combined damage of radiation to a number of bodily organs, especially the circulatory system, and includes some or all of the following: internal and external hemorrhaging, immune system damage, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, anorexia, ulcers, hair loss, sterility, miscarriages, thyroid gland damage, fever, and liver damage. Death in relation to radiation sickness usually results from blood cell population disruption and related circulatory system damage; also, radiation sickness can produce fatal complications in persons with other injuries or allow minor diseases to become fatal through immune system loss. The people within these strips who were outdoors while the fallout was deposited develop all these symptoms and die within 2 weeks. Those who were indoors may live up to 2 months before dying. The few persons in these areas who hid in basements or makeshift fallout shelters develop radiation sickness but have a good chance of surviving. Throughout this area all trees, mammals, and birds are also killed. As far as 290 km (180 miles) downwind of these explosions--including Harlingen--exposed persons develop radiation sickness and 50% die within 2 months--assuming they are uninjured. Nearly all persons with severe injuries who receive this dose will die within a month. In the Brownsville area most survivors develop radiation sickness by 6:30 the night after the attack. Most pregnant women miscarry their babies, and after two months the radiation sickness has killed 30% of those uninjured and 50% of those injured. In Matamoros and South Padre Island, about half those exposed develop radiation sickness to some degree, brain damage is produced in 20% of unborn babies, the immune system is impaired, and some deaths occur. Even across the Gulf of Mexico in Florida, radioactive dust particles slipping into cameras and packaging will produce spots on photographic film.

It is several days before outside aid becomes noticeable in the Valley. The federal governments in both the U.S. and Mexico restrict movement to and from the hardest hit areas. The U.S. government also restricts medical aid to the region. Survivors are divided into three groups: those that will live without treatment, those that will die even with treatment, and those that can be saved with treatment. Aid is restricted to the final group of survivors. Even so, over 100,000 people are to be treated. Consider the 60,000 severe burn victims in the Valley: even if the resources were available to gather all of them and transport them throughout the nation, they would overwhelm the nation's burn care facilities by over 20 to one. An outside presence is increased in the Valley to encourage the population if nothing else; psychological injury is just as widespread as physical injury. Many families have lost members (many more have been wiped out entirely); shock from injuries, views of death and destruction, grief, and loss of everything that was known as society sets in. Maintaining the essence of government poses problems, and anarchy reigns in some areas. Another difficulty arises as tens of thousands of Mexicans try to cross the river. Since the Mexican government does not have the resources to effectively aid the survivors, they attempt to isolate the affected area, and this leads the injured and homeless to seek aid in the U.S. By the time American authorities arrive in the Valley, it is too late to prevent injury from fallout radiation--and such injury is incurable.

Survival in the Valley in the first few months after the attack will be complicated by various factors. Thousands are sick or dying from prompt effects or fallout. Food, shelter, and medical aid are in short supply--and fighting over these items is frequent. Tens of thousands of bodies are to be disposed of--often with mass graves or large fires. The influx of Mexican refugees is a hardship, as are a number of bandit raiding parties. The loss of normal medical care, nutrition, sanitation, and burial procedures combine with decreased resistance to disease due to radiation to allow disease to ravage the Valley. Misinformation about radiation causes a significant degree of fear both in the Valley and in the rest of the nation.

Two months after the attack, the death toll in the Valley has reached 636,000; of the 161,000 survivors there are 47,000 injured. Only about 1,000 people who were in Brownsville when the attack occurred still survive. In south Texas and north-eastern Mexico, a total of 1,003,000 have been killed and 387,000 injured.

Over the next few months recovery efforts are under way. The federal government plays a major role, with large amounts of aid and martial law in effect. Something resembling preattack life eventually returns to Starr County, northern Hidalgo County, and the Port Isabel area. However, the refugees have more than tripled the population of these areas, and South Padre Island's status as a tourist attraction is now long gone--its hotels are occupied by refugees. The attack may have a detectable effect on the world's climate; dust deposited in the stratosphere blocks sunlight, and nitrogen oxides produced by the fireballs is lofted into the ozone layer, which is slightly depleted. However, both effects would be slight and would not last longer than a year. Most of the fallout in Hidalgo, Willacy, and Cameron counties has decayed to realistically safe levels (the overly cautious pre-attack standards would still permit only visits). One year after the attack, the lower Valley is generally safe; even pre-attack radiation standards would allow a weekend trip to the McAllen and Raymondville crater lakes. Most of the Valley's population is now tolerably fed, sheltered, and occupied with the tasks of recovery. Internal government is noticeable, martial law is gone, and contact with the rest of Texas has reemerged--although the U.S.-Mexico border is still basically shut in the area.

By five years post-attack, the Rio Grande Valley is almost recognizable. Pre-attack radiation standards would declare the rest of the Valley safe--although the devastated Brownsville, McAllen, and Raymondville areas remain unrebuilt. Cancer and genetic defects are now emerging in Valley survivors, and will continue to emerge throughout one and several generations, respectively. These will not pose major threats compared to other problems (because any amount of radiation sufficient to produce these effects to a truly significant degree would destroy the exposed population outright)--in fact, fear of these effects could be worse than the effects themselves. Genetic disorders will be noticeable in no more than 5% of the babies born in the area over the next few generations, and many of these defects will not be especially harmful. Induced cancer cases will be similar in quantity to levels produced by cigarette smoking in the population.

This is not a threat, now that the Cold War is over, right? Since the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, many of their weapons are being retired in keeping with the START treaties (the last SS-17 was removed from service in 1994) and many of the rest are poorly maintained. Supposedly ICBMs in silos are targeted on the oceans so that if one is accidentally launched it will not strike a U.S. city--of course, they can be retargeted on cities during the few minutes of pre-launch procedures in case of a war. On the other hand, Russia is dangerously unstable. Militant nationalists and former Communists are gaining popularity among the dissatisfied population. While the United States hasn't built a nuclear warhead since 1989, Russia is still producing new weapons, including ICBMs. Nuclear smuggling is rampant in Russia; criminals and terrorists may be obtaining left-over nuclear warheads. In March 1994 a Russian soldier guarding a truck-launched ICBM shot and killed three fellow soldiers, resulting in a three-hour stand-off. In January 1995 the Russian leadership, for a few desparate minutes, misinterpreted a Norweigan research rocket as the opening salvo of a nuclear attack by a U.S. submarine. Communist China has missiles that can reach the United States, and in October 1995 one of their generals offhandedly threatened Los Angeles. North Korea is working on building missiles to reach the U.S.; a test in 1998 got as far as the Pacific Ocean off Alaska.

If one missile, or a thousand missiles, are launched at the United States, the U.S. can do nothing but take the blow and choose to retaliate in kind. In March 1983 Ronald Reagan began the Strategic Defense Initiative to develop methods of stopping such missiles, but the Democratic Congress opposed it. In March 1996 the Clinton administration tried to stop Lt. General Malcolm O'Neill, head of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, from testifying before Congress that within two years, if approved by politicians, the U.S. could have a limited defense again the launch of a few ICBMs at a cost of $20 per U.S. citizen. Bill Clinton vetoed every attempt by Congress to call for the construction of a limited national defense, insisting that no country unfriendly to the U.S. would have long-range missiles before 2015. He reversed himself and signed such a bill in 1998 after North Korea, Pakistan, India, and Iran all tested new theater missiles within a period of a few months. The Clinton adminstration did little to implement the bill. In May 2001 George W. Bush declared that the U.S. should pursue development and deployment of a limited national missile defense. When control of the Senate changed hands in June 2001, Democratic leaders declared their commitment to opposing such deployment.

Casualties following nuclear attack on the Rio Grande Valley

(note: populations are estimates for spring 1993)

2 hours later2 months later
Cameron County313,000163,00022,000128,000219,00034,00060,000
Hidalgo County420,000172,00079,000169,000397,00012,00011,000
Starr County46,00001,00045,0002,0001,00043,000
Willacy County18,00013,0002,0003,00018,00000
Rio Grande Valley797,000348,000104,000345,000636,00047,000114,000
other south Texas232,00001,000231,0005,0007,000220,000
north Tamaulipas2,107,000220,000210,0001,677,000362,000333,0001,412,000

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© 1983, 1999, 2001 by Wm. Robert Johnston.
Last modified 5 June 2001.
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