The government’s zombie apocalypse is spreading and could come to an emergency-management center near you.
A few weeks before the government’s Zombie Awareness Month in October, FEMA’s monthly webinar Thursday discussed the success of the Centers for Disease Control’s zombie-preparedness campaign and how other centers can use pop culture references – even fictitious ones like the walking dead – to promote gearing up for real disasters.
Almost 400 emergency-management professionals tuned in nationwide, according to an official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“Zombie-preparedness messages and activities have proven to be an effective way of engaging new audiences, particularly young people who are not familiar with what to do before, during or after a disaster,” Danta Randazzo of FEMA’s individual and community preparedness division said during the webinar. “It’s also a great way to grab attention and increase interest in general.”
He said the original zombie campaign, which the CDC launched in May 2011, succeeded in educating more members of the public about real emergencies while keeping government costs relatively low. After all, preparation for a zombie apocalypse isn’t especially different from preparation for a number of other disasters, such as the CDC’s zombie apocalypse-education program recommendations to build an emergency kit with food, water and medications; plan an evacuation route and pick a meeting place to regroup.
Maggie Silver, one of the CDC zombie campaign’s masterminds, said she hears about zombie campaign copycats almost every week, and they call it “Zombie Nation.” It has spread to health departments, libraries and universities as well as Canada’s version of the CDC, she said.
“People were starting to realize they need to work outside the box a little bit and try some new ideas,” Silver told ABCNews.com. “They saw the CDC as an example of something that worked. We’re all trying to get our message out there.”
During the webinar, Silver said she’s often asked, “Why Zombies?”
As it turns out, the idea came from responders after the CDC asked its followers what they were prepared for after the March 2011 earthquake and Tsunami in Japan. Responders tweeted real disasters like “earthquake” and “hurricane,” but the Silver said officials also noticed a lot of “zombie” tweets.
“We decided to keep that in the back of our minds as we were planning for future events,” Silver said. “Of course, when hurricane season came around, we wanted to spice up our general preparedness message. We decided why not give people what they want?”
CDC officials used existing content, but refreshed it with a zombie theme. They started with a tongue-in-cheek blog post and linked to their other emergency pages. “We have a very small office and an equally small budget, so we had to do something that wasn’t going to take a lot of man power or dollars,” Silver said.
They had no idea it would take off the way it did, Silver said. The blog site crashed in 10 minutes as more than 30,000 people tried to read their 101 on zombie preparedness. Overall, the page had more than 60,000 views per hour. Eventually, traffic flowed to the main website.
“You pull them in with the zombies and then they stay to check out your other content,” Silver said.
Liana Gamber Thompson, a postdoctoral researcher at University of Southern California-Annenberg, studies media activism, fan communities and participatory politics. Her case studies include how the Harry Potter Alliance works to use themes from the series to promote activism. She said she has never done a case study on zombie imagery specifically, but it does pop up in her research.
“People are using that imagery and really trying to use it for social change,” she said. “It’s using the popularization of zombie imagery to learn how to fight evil in the real world, whether it’s preparing for a natural disaster or having supplies in your house.”
Gamber Thomson said with the popularization of shows like AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” she has seen zombie imagery for the Occupy Wall Street movement and the Wisconsin protest against a bill that would strip public workers of their collective bargaining rights in 2011.
“This campaign really taps into a piece of our cultural imagery where zombies have a real resonance,” Gamber Thompson said, explaining that the imagery has a shared meaning of evil to battle. “It’s more accessible, fun and playful.”
With the CDC’s zombie guide’s success, the department made posters, T-shirts and a graphic novella. Representatives even went to Comic-Con and Dragon-Con to talk to attendees about emergency zombie preparedness.
Zombie promos reached Kansas last year when its government officials launched an unofficial Zombie Preparedness Month at the Kansas State Fair, webinar speaker Devam Tuckings-Strickler said. They wore black and green T-shirts with zombie silhouettes bearing the slogan, “Are you prepared for the Unexpected?”
“For the first time, when I talked about disaster preparedness to people, they actually paid attention, looked me in the eye and had a conversation with me,” said Tuckings-Strickler, who works at the Kansas Division of Emergency Management.