Recently, in Shippensburg, PA, the local county department of emergency services announced that it was conducting a drill for emergency crews at the local county fairgrounds, and called for citizens to volunteer to play the part of disaster victims. Now, normally, that might seem like a ho-hum proceeding. But the practice session had an unusual twist. Instead of practicing the usual catastrophic scenarios—such as a tornado, a plane crash, or an anthrax attack by terrorists—the exercise would simulate an outbreak of a mysterious infection that turns victims into flesh-eating zombies. Such an event, of course, that has yet to occur, except in director George Romero’s classic low-budget horror movies and the hit cable television drama The Walking Dead. But to public safety officials, who encouraged residents to don costumes and makeup and offered a prize for the “best zombie walk,” the fictional crisis seemed like a perfect all-purpose metaphor.
“Let’s face it—if you’re prepared for zombies, you’re prepared for anything!” joked Franklin County Emergency Services director David Donohue, in a local newspaper account. He planned to provide the emergency crews with a pretend-antidote—M&Ms—to dispense to zombie infection victims. (That’s a gentler alternative to the treatment generally prescribed for the undead in horror flicks and TV shows, which is to shoot, stab or bludgeon them in the head.)
But Shippensburg is just one of many places these days where emergency planners are daring to contemplate what once might have seemed unthinkable, if not silly.
It started in 2011, when an official at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noticed that during the crisis involving a stricken nuclear power facility in Japan, a question that a Twitter user asked the CDC about zombies had inspired an outbreak of retweeting and comments. That gave the agency an inspiration. Why not take advantage of public fascination with staggering, reanimated cannibals to get them to contemplate how to respond to less grisly situations? CDC soon posted a blog entitled “Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse,” which discussed a fictional disease,” ataxic neurodegenerative satiety deficiency syndrome,” and noted that in pandemic scenario, “zombies would take over entire countries, roaming city streets eating anything living that got in their way.” It went on to explain CDC’s plan for dealing with a zombie attack, which basically is the same approach that it would take for any rapidly-spreading deadly infectious disease: quarantining patients and tracking their contacts to stem the spread, while deploying scientists to study the illness and try to find both a cause and a treatment. The post also listed various steps that ordinary citizens could take to prepare not just for zombies, but for earthquakes and other disasters, such as planning an evacuation route and picking a rally point where family members might be reunited. (“When zombies are hungry they won’t stop until they get food (i.e., brains), which means you need to get out of town fast,” the post advised).
According to a Washington Post article, the blog post proved so popular that the CDC website crashed from the number of visitors, and CDC’s Twitter feed for emergency preparations mushroomed by 100 almost overnight, to 1.2 million followers.
CDC went on to create an entire zombie-themed preparedness social media portal, which included everything from a smartphone app to downloadable posters that depicted a wild-haired female ghoul and bore the message, “DON’T BE A ZOMBIE—BE PREPARED.” They even created a graphic novella, Zombie Pandemic, which depicts the struggle of a couple named Todd and Julie, and their dog Max, to escape the onslaught of flesh eaters.
Since then, another government disaster responder, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, various state and local agencies, and local Red Cross chapters have joined in the effort to use zombies to promote preparedness. FEMA’s Citizencorps.gov website now offers a webinar to encourage the staging of fake zombie attack drills. In Omaha, Red Cross officials even enlisted the help of a local Ace Hardware store, which actually created a special section for zombies, filled with emergency supplies. “zombie preparedness has spread across the country like some unexplained, incurable virus,” the organization explained in a blog post.
While it’s tempting to dismiss zombie preparedness as a recent gimmick, the undead metaphor for public health and civil emergencies actually has been used before in epidemiology. In 2009, University of Ottawa mathematicians published a paper, “When Zombies Attack! Mathematical Modeling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection," which became the catchiest chapter in an otherwise dry anthology entitled Infectious Disease Modeling Research Progress. The researchers calculated the spread of a zombie outbreak similar to the one depicted in the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, and the predicted outcome was fairly horrific: “While aggressive quarantine may eradicate the infection, this is unlikely to happen in practice. A cure would only result in some humans surviving the outbreak, although they will still coexist with zombies. Only sufficiently frequent attacks, with increasing force, will result in eradication, assuming the available resources can be mustered in time.”
Worse yet, unless quickly quashed, a zombie outbreak would quickly escalate into a doomsday endgame that would cause the collapse of civilization; the normal occurrence of human births and deaths would provide the undead with a limitless supply of new bodies to infect, resurrect and convert to flesh-eating menaces. Thus, the researchers concluded: “If zombies arrive, we must act quickly and decisively to eradicate them before they eradicate us.”