Skip to main content
  • E-mail
  • Save
  • Print

CNN Classroom Edition: We Were Warned: Edge of Disaster

  • Story Highlights
  • Examine disaster scenarios and their potential impact on America
  • Explore options for preventing or responding to those potential disasters
  • Assess U.S. disaster preparedness
  • Develop a family and/or community preparedness plan
  • Next Article in Living »
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font

(CNN Student News) -- Record the CNN Special Investigations Unit Classroom Edition: We Were Warned: Edge of Disaster when it airs commercial-free on Monday, August 20, 2007, from 4:00 -- 5:00 a.m. ET on CNN. (A short feature begins at 4:00 a.m. and precedes the program.)

Program Overview

America's food supply, our ports, our power systems: Are they vulnerable to terror? Anderson Cooper investigates whether the government is ignoring vulnerabilities at home -- and whether we're prepared for the next natural or human-made disaster.

Note to Teachers: Please preview this program as it contains content that some students may find disturbing.

Grade Levels: 7 -- 12, College

Subject Areas: Geography, Civics, Government, Current Issues, Health, Science, Urban Planning


The CNN Special Investigations Unit Classroom Edition: We Were Warned: Edge of Disaster and its corresponding discussion questions and activity challenge students to:

  1. Examine scenarios of natural and human-made disasters and their potential impact on the U.S.;
  2. Explore options for preventing or responding to those potential disasters, and weigh the costs and benefits of those options;
  3. Assess U.S. disaster preparedness;
  4. Develop a family and/or community preparedness plan.

Curriculum Connections

Geography: Environment and Society

Standard 14: Understands how human actions modify the physical environment

Benchmark 4: Understands the environmental consequences of both the unintended and intended outcomes of major technological changes in human history (e.g., the effects of automobiles using fossil fuels)

Don't Miss

McREL: Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education (Copyright 2000 McREL) is published online by Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) (, 2550 S. Parker Road, Suite 500, Aurora, CO 80014. Telephone: 303/337-0990.


Standard 3 (grades 9-12): How does the government established by the Constitution embody the purposes, values and principles of the American Democracy?

The National Standards for Civics and Government ( are published by the Center for Civic Education (


Standard 2: Knows environmental and external factors that affect individual and community health

Benchmark 3: Knows local, state, federal, and international efforts to contain an environmental crisis and prevent a recurrence

Benchmark 4: Understands how peer relationships affect health

McREL: Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education (Copyright 2000 McREL) is published online by Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL) (, 2550 S. Parker Road, Suite 500, Aurora, CO 80014. Telephone: 303/337-0990.


Standard F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives

As a result of activities in grades 5-8 all students should develop an understanding of:

Natural hazards: Internal and external processes of the Earth system cause natural hazards, events that change or destroy human and wildlife habitats, damage property, and harm and kill humans.

Natural hazards can present personal and societal challenges because misidentifying the change or incorrectly estimating the rate and scale of change may result in either too little attention and significant human costs or too much cost for unneeded preventive measures.

The National Science Education Standards ( are published by the National Academies Press (

Discussion Questions

1. How do you define the word "disaster"? What natural or human-made disaster scenarios does this program explore? Which of these disasters, if any, have impacted or could impact where you live?

2. What is a "dirty bomb"? How do security officials suggest that civilians should react to a dirty bomb explosion? What plans do officials in Washington, D.C., have for responding to a dirty bomb attack? According to the scenario presented in the report, how might the detonation of a dirty bomb impact the inhabitants of a major city, both physically and psychologically?

3. For what is liquified natural gas (LNG) used? What makes Boston particularly susceptible to an LNG tanker attack? According to the report, how might an attack on an LNG tanker impact the people of Boston? What steps have Boston officials taken to prevent an LNG tanker attack? What do city officials suggest is the best way to prevent such an attack from happening?

4. What is bioterrorism? According to the report, what are the symptoms of smallpox? How does the disease spread from person to person? What potential ripple effects of a smallpox attack are described in the program? Who, according to the report, controls the distribution of the smallpox vaccine? What challenges do you think that a major city might have in responding to a smallpox or other bioterrorist attack?

5. What makes Sacramento, California, "the most vulnerable city to flooding in the United States"? What physical, social and economic impact could an earthquake and heavy rains have on Sacramento and its surrounding areas? What is a levee? How do experts describe the condition of the levees in the region around Sacramento? Why do city officials want to stop development near the old levees? What do you think are the possible challenges to preventing development near the levees?

6. What arguments for and against rebuilding the city of New Orleans were presented in the program? Do you think that efforts should be made to rebuild New Orleans? Explain.

7. What was the cause of the "biggest blackout in American history" in 2003? What do you think President George W. Bush meant when he said that the blackout was a "wake-up call"? Based on what you learned, do you think that future blackouts can be prevented? State your rationale.

8. Security expert Stephen Flynn states, "The biggest thing that we're not coming to grips with as a society is we're becoming more brittle. We're becoming more fragile. The infrastructure that we rely on was built largely by our grandparents and great-grandparents in the early part of the 20th century." What does he mean by "infrastructure"? What evidence does Flynn use to support his claim? Do you agree with his assertion? Why or why not? What options does the U.S. have for addressing potential infrastructure weaknesses?

9. What is "agro-terrorism"? What is botulism, and how can it affect humans? How did experts in the program respond to the simulated botulism outbreak? What suggestions do experts in the program have for preventing or addressing agro-terrorism?

10. What options does this report present for addressing the national security threats presented in We Were Warned: Edge of Disaster? What do you think might be the benefits or drawbacks of pursuing these options? What physical, political, social, economic and ethical decisions must be made in preparing for or responding to the scenarios presented in the program? Based on what you learned, do you think that America is prepared for these types of disasters?

11. According to the program, how did September 11, 2001, affect the way that we think about homeland security? What does Stephen Flynn suggest should have been the lessons learned from September 11? To what extent, if at all, do you think that Americans are concerned about natural or human-made disasters? Prior to watching this report, what concerns did you have about the potential for natural or human-made disasters to occur in the United States? Explain.

12. What do you think that security expert Stephen Flynn means when he says, "The best defense may turn out to be a pretty good defense"? According to the experts in the program, what roles should civilians play in protecting U.S. national security?

13. CNN's Anderson Cooper ends the program with the following statement: "The goal of the CNN Special Investigations report was not to frighten, but to try and enlighten." What information did you learn from this report? What do you think that Americans need to know about potential national security threats and plans for preventing or responding to those threats? What do you think is the most effective way to communicate this information to the public? What questions, if any, do you have for local, state or federal homeland security experts after watching this program?

Suggested Activity

Brainstorm with students a list of potential threats, including natural disasters and terrorist attacks, which could affect their school or community. Have students identify how these events could impact their community physically, economically, socially or psychologically. Then, ask: To what degree do you think that individuals, families and communities should be responsible for preparing for potential natural or human-made disasters?

Point out to students that, according to the Red Cross, "Families can, and do, cope with disaster by preparing in advance and working together as a team." Knowing what to do, says the Red Cross, "is your best protection and your responsibility." To help students and their families prepare for potential emergencies, direct students to the Web sites listed to assist them in creating family preparedness plans. Their plans should include communication plans, disaster supply kits and evacuation plans. Students may also want to include plans for pets and for disabled family members. Have students prepare multimedia presentations of their plans and share them with the class. After the presentations, encourage students to present printed copies of their plans to their family members.

Extension: Inform students that this is not the first time in U.S. history that civilians have been called upon to prepare for disasters or emergencies. During the Cold War, for example, Americans built bomb shelters and schoolchildren practiced "duck and cover" exercises to prepare for a possible nuclear attack from the Soviet Union. Review with students these and other historical examples of "civil defense." Then, challenge students to choose specific potential human-made or natural disasters, and have them create public service announcements (PSAs) to educate and prepare civilians for those threats. After students have presented their PSAs, discuss the benefits and challenges of educating the public about emergency management.


terrorism, disaster, dirty bomb, think tank, first responders, hot zone, radiation, liquid nitrogen gas, Coast Guard, pathogen, smallpox, homeland security, bioterrorism, vaccine, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, levees, Hurricane Katrina, infrastructure, power grid, blackout, sabotage, agro-terrorism, epidemiologists, botulism E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

  • E-mail
  • Save
  • Print