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Disaster Movies: Lessons Learned

Categories: Disease Investigation, General, Preparedness

twister backdrop

By Regina Quadir

With the Oscars just 3 days away, movies have been on our mind lately here at CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response.  Especially disaster movies.  They come in all kinds of flavors: deadly viruses, tornadoes, earthquakes, and, yes, even snakes on a plane.  

Their special effects can be realistic enough to make us feel like we are right there in the heart of the storm.  But frequently, the heroes and heroines of these movies respond to disasters in ways that bear no resemblance to what people in the real world should do. 

We can nevertheless use disaster films to consider how the characters could have been more prepared or how they should have reacted if the situation they faced was real.  Check out some of our favorite disaster movies and the lessons we can learn from them.

twister poster1.  Twister (1996).  Disaster: tornadoes.

Stormchasers played by Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton inadvertently drive head-on into several F3 – F6 tornadoes throughout the course of the movie, sometimes while trying to outrun them.  Although they find love in the end, they lose several pickup trucks in the process. 

Do not try to outrun a tornado in your car!  If you see a tornado, stop your vehicle and get out.  Do not get under your vehicle.  Lie down flat in a gully, ditch, or low spot on the ground.  Protect your head with an object or with your arms.  Learn more about what to do before and during a tornado here.


day after tomorrow poster2. The Day After Tomorrow (2004). Disaster: blizzard. 

Sam Hall (Jake Gyllenhaal), the son of a climatologist, and his friend, Laura (Emmy Rossum), are trapped with a group of people in a New York City library during a major blizzard whose sub-zero temperatures freeze everything in its path.  Despite Sam’s warnings to stay indoors, several restless people venture out into the cold only to meet their demise. 

When there is severe winter weather, the best thing to do is remain safely indoors.  You should stock up on emergency supplies beforehand and listen to weather forecasts to stay informed.  Make any trips outside as brief as possible, and dress warmly and stay dry.  Prepare your car by getting maintenance service on your vehicle as recommended, keeping the gas tank near full, and keeping an emergency kit for the car.  Learn more about winter weather preparedness here.


contagion movie poster3.  Contagion (2011).  Disaster: global epidemic.  

A chef at a casino in China prepares a pig carcass for dinner with his bare hands and then shakes the hands of an unsuspecting businesswoman (Gwyneth Paltrow) without washing his hands, thereby introducing a pig-bat supervirus to humans for the first time.  The virus goes on to kill tens of millions in just a few months.

The chef should have been more careful about washing his hands so that he could have avoided spreading the animal virus to humans. The simple act of frequent handwashing has the ability to save more lives than any single vaccine or medical intervention. Prevent foodborne illness, the spread of disease, and outbreaks by washing your hands regularly, especially after activities such as using the bathroom, handling an animal, or preparing food. Practice the four-steps to food safety and learn more about proper handwashing habits.

Deep Impact Poster4.  Deep Impact (1998).  Disaster: tsunamis.

Half of a comet smashes into the Earth, triggering 1,500-foot high tsunamis that race towards the coast of North America.  Many people remain on beaches until they are overwhelmed by the waves.  Those that seek higher ground survive.

If a tsunami is approaching, beaches are not the best place to congregate.  Move immediately to higher ground.  Follow the advice of local emergency and law enforcement authorities. High, multi-story concrete hotels are located in many low-lying coastal areas.  The upper floors of these hotels can provide a safe refuge if you hear a tsunami warning and you can’t quickly move inland to higher ground. Learn more about what to do before and after a tsunami here.

tremors poster5.  Tremors (1990).  Disaster: earthquakes.

Valentine McKee (Kevin Bacon) and friends are visiting a convenience store when the ground beneath them starts to shake.  To save themselves, they jump on top of the store’s shelving and then decide to head to the roof of the building after the shelving collapses. 

While real earthquakes are not caused by giant man-eating worms, if you find yourself in the middle of an earthquake, you should not climb on top of unstable objects or stand in a doorway or attempt to run to other rooms.  You are safer under a table.  DROP down onto your hands and knee, COVER your head and neck, and HOLD on to your shelter (or head and neck) until shaking stops.  Learn more about earthquake preparedness here.


Dante's Peak poster6. Dante’s Peak (1997).  Disaster: volcanic eruption.

After the volcano explodes, volcanologist Harry Dalton (Pierce Brosnan) handsomely crashes a pickup truck full of women and children into an abandoned mineshaft in order to avoid a quickly approaching lava flow and ash cloud. 

Instead of driving into an abandoned mineshaft, follow designated evacuation routes.  If you live in a known volcanic hazard area, develop an evacuation plan for your household.  Prepare an emergency kit for your vehicle and include things like food and water, goggles, and dust masks or other breathing protection.  Learn more about how to prepare for a volcanic eruption here.


Independence Day Movie Poster7. Independence Day (1996).  Disaster: alien invasion.

After downing an alien fighter plane that has separated from the mother ship, Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith) foolishly approaches the downed plane, unarmed, only to find that the alien pilot is still alive.  Smith’s character punches the alien in the face, quipping “welcome to Earth.”

In case of an alien invasion, do not attempt to save humankind all by yourself.  If an alien asks you to take it to your leader, buy yourself some time by showing it a Lady Gaga music video and dial 9-1-1 while it watches.  In the event an international strike force by our world’s greatest celebrity action heroes cannot prevail against the alien fleet, then…well…might as well just sit back and relax with another good disaster movie as you wait for our new alien overlords to tell us what to do.

What other lessons have you learned from disaster movies?  What is your favorite apocalyptic movie? Let us know in the comments.  

For more fun preparedness tips, follow us on Twitter @CDCReady.

Public Comments

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this blog is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

  1. February 23, 2012 at 12:20 pm ET  -   Amir

    Awesome list, definitely alot of favorite disaster movies; I also liked 2012

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  2. February 23, 2012 at 2:20 pm ET  -   Alisa

    This is great! Well done, CDC, for making important topics engaging and informative. Keep it coming!

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  3. February 23, 2012 at 4:11 pm ET  -   Amy

    Great article!

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  4. February 23, 2012 at 8:50 pm ET  -   m

    i love this blog! have seen all but one of these movies. thanks for providing important info in a fun format…keep up the good work! thank you!

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  5. February 23, 2012 at 11:27 pm ET  -   Lynn

    My favorite is Independence Day – The greatest Presidential speech ever.

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  6. February 24, 2012 at 9:25 am ET  -   Y

    I’m surprised to not see 28 Days Later on here!

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  7. February 24, 2012 at 10:12 am ET  -   JS

    So funny! I often think people in the movies are shown doing just the opposite of what they should in disasters…particularly scientists!! Enjoyed reading the article!

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  8. February 24, 2012 at 10:20 am ET  -   Carol

    The only thing forgotten is the ever important and increasingly popular “zombie attack”. What should one do in a brush with the undead?

    Very informative and lighthearted and fun at the same time. Very nice.

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  9. AUTHOR COMMENT February 24, 2012 at 10:50 am ET  -   Blog Administrator

    @Carol- Thank you! Please check out our Zombie Apocalypse post too, here is the link:

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  10. February 24, 2012 at 3:52 pm ET  -   Carla Smothers

    Very funny and informative! I loved it, especially the advice on Independence Day!

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  11. February 24, 2012 at 6:18 pm ET  -   WW

    Very informative. Laughin’ and learnin’. Laughin’ and learnin’. For some reason, I agree that Lady Gaga would be our best defense against an alien invasion.

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  12. February 24, 2012 at 7:42 pm ET  -   Rosanna

    Great list, CDC.
    How about Volcano in which Tommy Lee Jones, the LA Emergency Program Manager / Director, who bravely went to the site to try to divert lava flows with vehicles? While at the same time, he was trying to save his daughter in his truck and didn’t believe the scientist (Anne Heche), who also bravely got within inches of hot boiling lava underground.
    How quickly all hell breaks loose when EOC people try to do the work of the site responders. Instead EOC folks should stay in the EOC to strategize and allow and trust the site responders to do their work.

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  13. February 24, 2012 at 7:47 pm ET  -   SamuraiJack

    #2 needs to include that burning furniture will create a longer lasting and hotter fire than books and paper will.

    Burn.. the..freaking.. furniture..

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  14. February 26, 2012 at 4:52 pm ET  -   kevin thomas

    I especially like the listing for tremors, if you haven’t prepared enough yourself knowing someone who has can be real helpful.

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  15. February 27, 2012 at 1:04 pm ET  -   Z

    nicely written! never thought much about it..

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  16. February 27, 2012 at 6:19 pm ET  -   Lori CSN Nevada

    Pretty awesome suggestions

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  17. February 28, 2012 at 1:38 am ET  -   natural pain

    Yeah its very useful and informative . good one

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  18. February 28, 2012 at 2:48 pm ET  -   Bill

    “Tremors” spawned one of the greatest, campiest comic-horror franchises in movie history.

    I can’t believe that the CDC left out the original “Andromeda Strain.”

    On a more somber note, “Take Shelter” is one of my favorite films ever, but is probably more about our perception of mental health, or the lack thereof, than an actual disaster. Maybe it will be on someone from the NIMH’s list.

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  19. February 28, 2012 at 5:09 pm ET  -   Crystal Foster

    Loved the comments. What a great website.
    Never heard of zombie apocalypse until now.

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  20. March 10, 2012 at 7:00 am ET  -   Christopher Rex

    Ummm, doesn’t the Fujita (and the currently used, Enhanced Fujita) scale for tornadoes only range from F0-F5? There is no mention of F6 in the movie Twister (I just watched it to double-check), and I’m pretty sure F5 is the maximum tornado category. I thought it was rather clever for the CDC to publish a Zombie Apocalypse Preparedness guide as a “fun and interesting” way to get people involved, prepared, and enthusiastic about preparing for disasters, even if it is dangerous to perpetuate such a belief in the possibility of a zombie apocalypse (as it is not biologically possible to be “undead” or maintain any sort of bodily function when “not alive” for a significant period of time).

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  21. March 12, 2012 at 10:45 pm ET  -   Alex

    Love the article. But… has anyone reading this actually seen tremors?? It has nothing to do with earthquakes. It is still a good movie though…

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  22. March 13, 2012 at 2:05 pm ET  -   Gary

    Somewhere there is someone mad that our tax dollars are hard at work writing ridiculous blogs about disaster movies and zombie outbreakes. Every where else people are laughing and learning important safety procedures about what to do in case of a disaster due to CDC’s ability to teach these procedures to those who would otherwise not care through alternative teaching tactics.

    My hats off to whoever thought of the ideal and to whoever gave them the OK to do it.

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  23. March 13, 2012 at 2:07 pm ET  -   Keegan

    Awesome! And I loved how you were on the spot with the Zombie Apocalypse post reply <3

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  24. March 13, 2012 at 9:06 pm ET  -   ProjectTermina

    What, no Zombie Apocalypse scenario? Outrageous. We’re prepared for aliens, but not for zombies.

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  25. March 13, 2012 at 10:43 pm ET  -   Alex

    The Tremors one ignores the real problem, the giant man-eating worms, any tips on dealing with them?

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  26. March 14, 2012 at 1:24 am ET  -   inannamute

    I’m concerned that you haven’t decided upon a team of deep sea miners to send to an asteroid in case of impending earth impact.. Also, while not a movie, I feel you have left out the important tv series “Jericho” where everyone survives nuclear fallout rain by sheltering in a mine/town hall basement for a couple of hours, after which it isn’t a problem.

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  27. March 14, 2012 at 7:29 am ET  -   OkieNative

    Shouldn’t the Tornado advice be to seek shelter and ONLY if there isn’t any, to go to a low lying area? I would think mentioning that underpasses are really BAD places to hang out might be good, too. $.02

    Love this concept. Nice to see health educators using pop culture to convey serious information, and not, to quote another movie, “We in the federal government have no sense of humor that we are aware of.”

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  28. March 14, 2012 at 1:26 pm ET  -   Bender

    It’s not wise to sniff anything up your nose, but especially not the “spice” peddled by aliens with iridescent blue eyes. Watch the movie “Dune” to find out what this stuff really is.

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  29. AUTHOR COMMENT March 15, 2012 at 11:45 am ET  -   Blog Administrator

    @OkieNative Thanks for your comments! Yes you are correct in that if you experiencing a tornado, take cover immediately. But in the case of Twister,they were outside trying to outrun a tornado in their car, so if shelter cannot be found, next best would be to try to lie down flat in a gully, ditch, or low spot on the ground.

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  30. AUTHOR COMMENT March 15, 2012 at 11:46 am ET  -   Blog Administrator

    @ProjectTermina: for our Zombie Apocalypse scenario, check out

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  31. AUTHOR COMMENT March 15, 2012 at 11:47 am ET  -   Blog Administrator

    @Gary-Thanks for your comments! Glad you enjoyed this post.

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  32. March 19, 2012 at 2:21 pm ET  -   Marie

    This is hilarious! Great job!

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  33. April 3, 2012 at 9:22 pm ET  -   MiniBooger

    You missed what to do when:

    Birds mysteriously fall from the sky – The Core
    A huge asteroid is hurling toward earth – Armageddon
    Tomatoes turn rabid and violent – Attack of the Killer Tomatoes
    Some greedy idiot clones dinosaurs from mosquitoes encased in amber – Jurassic Park
    Not to mention what we should do should we encounter Mansquito or Dinocroc.
    However, you can forego guidance related to twinkling vampires. No such thing.

    (Good job, btw – I thoroughly enjoyed the Zombie Apocalypse Preparedness post! Keep them coming!)

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  34. AUTHOR COMMENT May 4, 2012 at 9:08 am ET  -   Blog Administrator

    Thanks for adding to the list! What are some other classic disaster movies?

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  35. AUTHOR COMMENT May 8, 2012 at 2:58 pm ET  -   Blog Administrator

    @Y: great movie suggestion. how do you think the characters could have responded/prepared better?

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  36. May 30, 2012 at 8:40 am ET  -   Rob Buzzerd

    One of the best disaster themed movies was “Right at Your Door” and is a must add to any disaster list.
    It presents a lot of good current information that could be useful in a real disaster and is an entertaining movie as well. Was in limited release to US theaters but available on DVD.

    “Right at Your Door” released in 2006
    A dirty bomb goes off in Los Angeles, jamming freeways and spreading a toxic cloud.

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  37. June 4, 2012 at 6:41 pm ET  -   SoCal Jeff

    FINALLY, I’VE BEEN VINDICATED!!!… These are exactly the points I have been making for years! Read the Joplin after action reports about how hundreds of ‘Zombies’ laid siege to the only hospital that was able to get its emergency generators going. The ‘Zombies’ homed in on the only lights on the horizon (upper floors), clogging the only usable roads to emergency vehicles, overwhelming what little security the hospital had, and consuming in days what would have been weeks worth of (managed) supplies.
    We used to say things like… “you can’t write this stuff”. Well, obviously Hollywood can, and Disaster Managers and planners need to start infusing just such “Black Swan” thinking and imagination into drills and training. To ignore such lessons is to do so at their community’s inevitable peril.

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  38. July 28, 2014 at 2:51 am ET  -   Bluesconian

    Great!!! I enjoy this blog, List of Disaster Movies hahah I remember when I was a child wondering when it will happen.

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