Children growing up in the 1980s were vaguely aware of the threat of nuclear annihilation the way children today are vaguely aware of the threat of being eaten by sharks. You heard horror stories and you saw movies about it, but it was something more than distant. It was like playacting royalty: Kings and queens exist, sure, but obviously they are not things you are going to bump into any time soon.

Our parents’ experience with the threat of nuclear war was different. There were the Soviets, bristling with warheads. The world order was still new for the baby boomers, and fragile. Those born the year World War II ended were 17 during the Cuban missile crisis, and they had more than a decade of nuclear-war preparation under their belts. Bert the Turtle offered them the best advice that American authorities had in their tool belts: If a nuke explodes near you, cover your head.

For nearly all of the 1990s, the threat of nuclear attack shifted to the background, transforming itself into the fear that a terrorist would obtain a nuclear device or set off a dirty bomb. It has been only recently, with North Korea’s tests of high-yield nuclear devices and long-range missiles, that the threat of a nuclear strike by a foreign adversary again has started to seem like something that might actually happen.

Might. North Korea has yet to demonstrate that it can fit a warhead onto a missile, that it can target a missile accurately or that it can successfully combine the two to deliver an atomic weapon anywhere within the United States. But it has moved much closer to that goal over the past 12 months, making the threat of a possible strike by that country seem much more real than it did even a decade ago. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) told the Atlantic magazine in an interview this week that he thinks there may be as much as a 70 percent chance of the United States launching a preemptive military strike against the country should it conduct another test of a nuclear weapon — ramping up the likelihood that North Korea would retaliate significantly.

With that in mind, we figured it was worth consulting an expert to see what Americans might do to prepare for the threat of a nuclear strike. Meet Suzet McKinney, of the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health. McKinney was formerly the deputy commissioner of the Bureau of Public Health Preparedness and Emergency Response at the Chicago Department of Public Health and is on the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

We will jump ahead to the question that motivated us to look into this: Does Bert the Turtle’s “duck and cover” actually work?

Surprisingly, yes.

“I would honestly say the duck-and-cover response from the Cold War era is really the best protection that we as individual citizens would have after a nuclear bomb or improvised nuclear device was detonated,” McKinney said. “That really is a method of personal protection against the effects of a nuclear explosion. Quite honestly, it’s inexpensive, and it’s something that’s very easy for every single member of a family or every single member of a community to understand.

Why? If a nuclear blast happens within a few hundred yards of you, depending on the yield (that is, power) of the nuke, there’s probably not going to be much you can do one way or the other. If it happens at more of a distance, the immediate effect will in broad strokes be similar to the effect of other disasters: A blast wave that knocks over buildings and shatters windows. “Duck and cover” is the best response, because it’s essentially the same as “shelter in-place,” McKinney said, emphasizing the need to urgently protect yourself from physical harm.

“We put a lot of stock in the shelter-in-place theory,” she said. “With these nuclear bombs, the most effective [response] seems to be shielding from debris and material that can cause traumatic injury. So if you are in a place or can get to a place that you will help shield you from some of those things, then that’s what we want to promote.” Asked whether it is worth trying to get to a bomb shelter, McKinney said that, in general, it is not, given the risk of being caught outside instead of in a place of shelter.

That is what you should do in the moment. We also asked what should be done as preparation. Should we stock up radiation suits? Buy anti-radiation medication?

We should not.

“The first thing that people can do now and should be doing now is educating ourselves on the threat,” she said. “What is the threat, and what does it actually mean?” The rationale is simple: Better to know how to react now than to have to try to scramble when the nuke is en route to figure out what to do.

McKinney recommended getting information from local authorities. Some local emergency-response agencies may have information online about how to respond to such a disaster, but she also recommended attending public forums about the threat and asking leaders in person any questions you may have. If you are interested in going a step further, she recommended volunteering with emergency response teams to get better acquainted — and more comfortable — with what to expect.

More directly, McKinney recommended having emergency response kits for everyone in the family, including children, the elderly — and pets. This is not nuclear-attack specific; she recommends everyone having these anyway. What goes in those kits? The city of Chicago has a list. It includes:

  • Three days’ worth of water (one gallon per person per day).
  • Three days’ worth of food (ready-to-eat or just-add-water).
  • Manual can opener.
  • First aid items (bandages, alcohol wipes, disinfectant ointments, etc.).
  • Essential medications
  • Flashlight.
  • Radio (battery-operated or manual )
  • Batteries.
  • A Ziploc bag including cash in small denominations and copies of important documents (insurance policies, medical prescriptions, etc.).
  • Unscented liquid household bleach for water purification.
  • Personal hygiene items, including toilet paper, feminine supplies and soap.
  • Sturdy shoes.
  • Heavy gloves.
  • Warm clothing, a hat and rain gear.
  • A local map.
  • Extra prescription eye glasses, hearing aid or other vital personal items.
  • Utility knife and plastic sheeting and duct tape for covering broken windows.
  • Blankets or sleeping bags.
  • Extra keys to your house and vehicles.
  • Large plastic bags for waste and sanitation.

“There’s nothing special that people can buy or should be buying in the threat of a nuclear attack,” McKinney said. “It is the simple, common-sense things that we should all have on hand in the event of an emergency.”

If you have a bunker or basement in your home, McKinney recommends preparing it a bit further with more food and water.

The time to make these preparations and understand the proper responses is now — not because there is any real, imminent threat of a nuclear strike but because there is no reason not to have these preparations on hand anyway. McKinney reinforced the most important point she had to offer.

“I have found in my experience that when people are knowledgeable, they can be calmer and they can act in a more efficient manner,” she said. 

And if you see that flash of light in the distance, do what Bert the Turtle does.