The Terrifying Reality Behind the Government’s Disaster Scenarios (and How Many People Die in Each)

The U.S. government has a lot on its plate. From responding to natural disasters to running damage control on President Donald Trump’s Twitter account, the powers-at-be certainly have their hands full. And because the government’s duties involve being prepared for just about anything, it has come up with a way to cover all its bases. How? With 15 National Planning Scenarios.

Before we dive in, consider this fair warning: These scenarios — which were developed by an interagency called the Scenario Working Group — are terrifying.

According to FEMA, “The SWG refined and vetted fifteen all-hazards planning scenarios. Twelve represent terrorist attacks; three represent natural disasters or naturally-occurring epidemics.” And the scariest part is the group predicted just how many people would die in each scenario, along with how much money they would set us back.

Scenario 1: Nuclear detonation – improvised nuclear device

To large missile launch vehicles are paraded down the street in PyongYang

A nuclear explosion would be extremely deadly. | Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

  • Casualties: Hundreds of thousands
  • Economic impact: Hundreds of billions

In the first scenario, the threat is in the form of an improvised nuclear device. “National Planning Scenario No. 1 is a 10-kiloton nuclear detonation in a modern US city,” Brooke Buddemeier, health physicist and radiation expert, told Business Insider. “A 10-kiloton nuclear detonation is equivalent to 5,000 Oklahoma City bombings. Though we call it ‘low yield,’ it’s a pretty darn big explosive.” Not too surprisingly, the casualties would be in the hundreds of thousands.

Next: You probably know the name of this particular weapon. 

Scenario 2: Biological attack – aerosol anthrax

Anthrax bacteria under microscope

Anthrax can lead to a deadly infection. | Dr_Microbe/iStock/Getty Images

  • Casualties: 13,000 fatalities and injuries
  • Economic impact: Billions

There are three different types of anthrax: cutaneous anthrax, gastrointestinal anthrax, and inhalational anthrax. For the sake of this scenario, which “describes a single aerosol anthrax attack in one city,” people would develop inhalational anthrax. The result? A serious, progressive infection.

Next: This took down hundreds of thousands of people during the 20th century.  

Scenario 3: Biological disease outbreak – pandemic influenza

injecting injection vaccine vaccination medicine flu woman docto

Not enough people are vaccinated. | scyther5/iStock/Getty Images

  • Casualties: 209,000 fatalities and 865,000 hospitalizations for moderate scenario; 1.9 million fatalities and 9.9 million hospitalizations for severe scenario
  • Economic impact: $181 billion for a moderate pandemic

A pandemic could occur if a new influenza A virus subtype were to emerge. Because people have not been vaccinated, there is no immunity, and the entire population would be at risk. In fact, three influenza pandemics occurred in the 20th century. The 1918 pandemic resulted in over 500,000 deaths in the U.S., the 1957 pandemic resulted in about 70,000 deaths, and the 1968 pandemic saw about 34,000 deaths.

Because another pandemic is a serious threat, the government has a plan this time around. Once the World Health Organization declares a “pandemic alert,” the government would immediately start working on a vaccine.

Next: Nobody likes getting sick.  

Scenario 4: Biological attack – plague

The plague could cost the economy millions. | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Getty Images

  • Casualties: 9,553 fatalities and 28,383 illnesses
  • Economic impact: Millions

There are two common forms of plague in humans. The first is bubonic, which is transmitted through the bite of an infected flea. Symptoms show up within one to seven days after exposure, and they include fever, chills, and headache. Furthermore, the fatality rate for bubonic plague, if left untreated, is as high as 50%.

The second type of plague is pneumonic, which occurs when someone inhales Y. pestis organisms. Symptoms are sudden and severe, showing up one to four days within exposure, and they include fever, chills, cough, and chest pain. More importantly, the fatality rate for pneumonic plague “may be as high as 100% if aggressive antibiotic therapy is not initiated within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms.”

Yikes, those are some pretty scary numbers. Thankfully, the government has a thought-out plan should the U.S. ever come under a plague attack.

Next: This kind of attack would leave long-term health effects. 

Scenario 5: Chemical attack – blister agent

Chemical weapons

An attack in a concentrated area could kill hundreds. | Nigel Treblin/Getty Images

  • Casualties: 150 fatalities and 70,000 hospitalizations
  • Economic impact: $500,000

Ever heard of something called Agent Yellow? Probably not. Agent Yellow is a combination of blister agents that causes damage to the respiratory system, serious burns, and damage to bone marrow and blood vessels.

In the scenario, the agent is sprayed from an aircraft into a packed college football stadium. If the exposure if high enough, there would be casualties. While the infrastructure damage would be minimal, this attack would leave many long-term health effects.

Next: This would be a major threat to anyone in the near vicinity. 

Scenario 6: Chemical attack – toxic industrial chemicals

HAZMAT Team Members The Right Stuff

Industrial plants are extremely common. | BenDC/iStock/Getty Images

  • Casualties: 350 fatalities and 1,000 hospitalizations
  • Economic impact: Billions

A chemical attack using industrial chemicals is certainly within the realm of possibility. Just consider how many industrial plants are sprinkled across the country. Not only would all those in the direct vicinity die, but individuals who are downwind would also be in grave danger due to vapor exposure.

Next: This is the worst kind of chemical warfare agents.  

Scenario 7: Chemical attack – nerve agent

Gas mask with yellow chemical protection suit

The gas could kill an entire office building. | Dmyto/iStock/Getty Images

  • Casualties: 5,700 fatalities and 300 injuries
  • Economic impact: $300 million

If you want to think about something scary, think about nerve agents. They’re “the most toxic and rapidly acting of the known chemical warfare agents.” For good reason, the government has a scenario for this. In the situation the Scenario Working Group describes, the agent is released into the ventilation system of an office building, killing 95% of the people inside, as well as creating a downwind hazard.

Next: This kind of attack would result in a massive explosion. 

Scenario 8: Chemical attack – chlorine tank explosion

Stands among a destroyed building caused by an explosion

If terrorists ever attack a gas tank, it could be incredibly deadly. | Erich Schlegel/Getty Images

  • Casualties: 17,500 fatalities and 10,000 severe injuries
  • Economic impact: Millions

According to the National Planning Scenarios document, “Chlorine gas is yellow-green in color and although not flammable alone, it can react explosively or form explosive compounds with other chemicals such as turpentine or ammonia.”

By the sound of it, this stuff is super dangerous, which is why the government has laid out a plan should terrorists ever rupture a tank of it.

Next: This natural disaster has costly effects.  

Scenario 9: Natural disaster – major earthquake

San Andreas heat map

Severe earthquakes can be hard to predict. | David McNew/Getty Images

  • Casualties: 1,400 fatalities and 18,000 hospitalizations
  • Economic impact: Hundreds of billions

As the first natural disaster on the list, you probably know what a major earthquake entails. For instance, a 7.5-magnitude quake hits a metropolitan area, with a subsequent 8-magnitude earthquake following suit. The government estimates that 150,000 buildings would be destroyed, and 1 million buildings would be damaged. The economic impact would run hundreds of billions.

Next: We’ve had plenty of these in recent years. 

Scenario 10: Natural disaster – major hurricane

Hurricane Frances

Hurricanes seemingly keep getting worse. | U.S. NOAA/Wikimedia Commons

  • Casualties: 1,000 fatalities and 5,000 hospitalizations
  • Economic impact: Billions

2017 saw its fair share of horrific hurricanes. But still, the government needs to predict what we should expect when faced with a potential natural disaster. The numbers estimated, including the billions of dollars in repair costs and thousands being killed and requiring medical help, reflect a category 5 hurricane.

Next: This one has wide-reaching effects.

Scenario 11: Radiological attack – radiological dispersal device


A dirty bomb could have a long-term impact. | John Moore/Getty Images

  • Casualties: 180 fatalities; 270 injuries; 20,000 detectable contaminations (at each site)
  • Economic impact: Billions

This kind of attack involves a Radiological Dispersal Device, or “dirty bomb.” And it does far more than kill people in its immediate reach. One of the main reasons why a radiological attack is so dangerous is because of its contamination potential. Should one of these “dirty bombs” be used, it would be highly radioactive and very difficult to clean up.

Next: Public places can mean people are sitting ducks should an emergency occur. 

Scenario 12: Explosives attack – bombing using improvised explosive device

There have been several examples showing the fallout. | FBI/Getty Images

  • Casualties: 100 fatalities and 450 hospitalizations
  • Economic impact: Millions

Any location that draws a mass amount of people can pose a threat to everyone there. An arena, for instance, is the perfect place for this kind of attack, which is just where this scenario is carried out. In an effort to “inflict the greatest number of casualties,” suicide bombers aim to reach as many people as possible.

Next: We rely on the workers at food production sites to keep us safe, but food contamination is a threat. 

Scenario 13: Biological attack – food contamination

Detail of a man shopping in supermarket

Food contamination could affect over 1,000 people. | Minerva Studio/iStock/Getty Images

  • Casualties: 500 fatalities and 600 hospitalizations
  • Economic impact: Millions 

This scenario is far more disconcerting than what we typically worry about when it comes to our food. Aside from GMO-riddled products and chicken coop horror stories, there could be a much bigger reason to avoid certain foods at all costs. Should food contamination become a real concern in the U.S., the government estimates over 1,000 people would be at risk.

Next: This isn’t a human threat, at least not directly. 

Scenario 14: Biological attack – foreign animal disease (foot-and-mouth disease)


The disease could affect U.S. livestock. | Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

  • Casualties: None
  • Economic impact: Hundreds of millions

Is this an actual human threat? No, but it’s still a possibility worth planning for. Foot-and-mouth disease, which is an infectious viral disease that can occur in animals, such as cows and pigs, can be fatal to young animals. This kind of attack on U.S. livestock would have far-reaching effects.

Next: Would we even be able to live without the internet?  

Scenario 15: Cyber attack

Words Data protection on button of computer keyboard

Cyber attacks pose a major threat to government information. | tashka2000/iStock/Getty Images

  • Casualties: None directly
  • Economic impact: Hundreds of millions

Hackers have been around since the beginning of the internet. However, a serious cyber attack would pose a massive threat to the entire country. The internet would no longer be a viable source, and people’s privacy would be compromised. The harmful effects of a cyber attack are endless. For this reason, the government has prepared for this scenario.

Read more: Here’s How a North Korean Nuclear Attack Could Ruin the U.S. Economy 

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