Are NYers Safe in Fallout Shelters in the Case of a Nuclear Attack?
By: Hadassa Kalatizadeh
Over the summer, New York City officials made a public service announcement instructing New Yorkers of the proper course to take in the unlikely event of a nuclear attack.
As reported by the Gothamist, the announcement notes that what seems as common sense, of taking shelter into any building might be the wrong course of action. In the event of nuclear Armageddon, experts advise taking cover only in a building that has a fallout shelter sign. These black-and-yellow signs were posted some 50 years ago on thousands of buildings throughout the five boroughs. The signs indicate that the building will be a safe bet to protect against the deadly radioactivity of an atomic bomb. In most cases these building have heavy concrete, and the deeper into the building a person can get, the better. People are instructed to stay on low floors, or a basement if possible, and to close any windows or doors. Of course, the buildings, signs and instructions are only at all useful if we have prior warning and are able to get into the shelter before any initial blast.
The United States hasn’t really put much effort into the shelters, and thankfully we haven’t had the need. There were once roughly 230,000 sites in NYC designated as fallout shelters. What we have now is just a previous half-hearted effort designed half a century ago to quiet the fears of an unlikely occurrence in America. Congress stopped funding the program for fallout shelters back in the 1970s, and even before then it wasn’t really considered a plan that would save lives. In fact, the Office of Civil Defense — which had made these signs and was a precursor to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is no longer functioning. “I’m really struck at the enormous fraud that was perpetrated on the public,” says Dr. Jeffrey Kroessler, an associate professor who specializes in New York City history and is the interim chief librarian at John Jay College. “And let’s give New Yorkers credit. They knew that this was ridiculous. That it was a fraud; that there is no such thing as survivability.”
The science for the nuclear fallout shelters hasn’t been updated. The architecture standards are still what was decided decades ago. It’s clear though that radioactive material can last in the air for a long time, so FEMA says that HEPA air filters or a functional equivalent would be best to provide a higher level of protection. The federal guide states that in order for a fallout center to be acceptable to protect against nuclear activity, the building needs to have concrete walls and roofs that are 40-to-50-inches thick, in order to block gamma radiation.
You might be wondering if there is a list of buildings designated as nuclear fallout shelters. As per the Gothamist, there is not. Because the Office of Civil Defense was totally dissolved, we don’t even know how many of these buildings with signage are remaining. Neither the NYC Emergency Management, the city’s education department, nor FEMA have intentions of tracking down the fallout shelter signs. The signs may also have been accurate at a time, but a change to the location may have left it useless as a shelter. “I love seeing these old signs. But at the end of the day, it’s a sign that indicates that something’s there, and it’s not there, and in the extremely off chance that something happens and someone sees that sign, it could be pointing someone in the wrong direction,” says Jeff Schlegelmilch, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.