WASHINGTON – With the nation facing an increased threat from nuclear terrorism, at least one community is rebuilding a public fallout shelter program like those abandoned in the 1970s when Americans began believing surviving a nuclear event was not possible or not worthwhile.
In Alabama, the Huntsville-Madison County Emergency Management Agency, in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security, local schools and hospitals and businesses, has identified facilities suitable for public shelters against nuclear and radiological attacks for nearly half of the area’s 300,000 people.
Spending only tens of thousands of dollars, the agency has successfully trained 78 shelter managers and is in the process of attempting to identify and secure more facilities to protect the public from the effects of radiation following a nuclear event.
“Beyond identifying usable shelters, the community must be properly trained for operating a shelter,” says Kirk Paradise, plans coordinator for the Huntsville/Madison County Emergency Management Agency. “In our study, we outline a command and support organizational chart vital to successful shelter operation. This training can easily be implemented into a citizen emergency response training course.”
The agency also is awaiting grants for the installation of the once-familiar fallout shelter signs that would guide the public to the nearest facility in the event of a nuclear accident or attack.
Paradise and his boss, John Russell, offered a presentation to other emergency planners at a nuclear event symposium in Richmond, Va., last month.
“What happens if Osama bin Laden fulfills his promised American Hiroshima?” they asked in their power-point program.
“This is not re-fighting the Cold War, but adapting to the threat of global terrorism and the spread of nuclear weapons to nations who will use them if they get them,” said Paradise.
Sample radioactive fallout
He explained the initiative in Huntsville to take action came in response to a mandate from the Department of Homeland Security for major population centers to create a “Metropolitan Medical Response System” – a plan of defense against a small-yield nuclear weapon or dirty bomb attack.
Without a shelter system, such an attack would result in 7,500 immediate deaths, 25,000 contamination victims and some 100,000 displaced people in the Huntsville area alone, according to projections.
Paradise and Russell say those numbers can be greatly reduced with minimal and inexpensive preparations.
Madison County now has more than 150 federally surveyed and approved public fallout shelters. Work began last year to revitalize the shelter program.
While the shelters in Huntsville are not stocked with food, water and other supplies like many were in the 1960s, their availability should such an emergency arise at least provides the opportunity for civilians to bring their own food and water. The Huntsville team is also working on grants for stockpiling supplies.
“Members of our EMA staff have a tremendous amount of expertise which serves our community well in times of emergencies,” said Mayor Loretta Spencer. “They are continually recognized on the national, state and regional level for their emergency preparedness training programs.”
The International Association of Emergency Managers Bulletin recently published a paper written by Paradise, “Protection frrom the Ultimate WMD: Attack with Nuclear or Radiological Weapons,” which analyzes and deatils the need for evacuation plans and fallout shelters in the event of a nucledar or radiological attack.
Besides state and local government buildings, the potential shelters in Huntsville include private schools, shopping malls, churches, industrial buildings, professional buildings, banks, apartment buildings and caves.
“If a nuclear weapon is detonated by terrorists, fallout shelters and the ability to use them will be the difference as to whether we are just victims or survivors, ready to rebuild our society,” said Paradise.
Some abandoned shelters from the ’70s and ’80s can be reclaimed, say Paradise and Russell. New potential shelter sites require permission from owners. The capacity and protective ability of all facilities need to be calculated. All of it takes work and planning by local authorities.
Asked if they were aware of any other communities in the country that have taken these steps to date – even since the mandate from the Department of Homeland Security – Paradise said he was not.
The history of civil defense in the U.S. is long and complicated. While fear of nuclear war grew throughout the 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower resisted building an extensive national shelter program as the Soviet Union and other countries did.
In the 1960s, following the Berlin airlift and the Cuban Missile Crisis, America stepped up its shelter program. At the time, surveys showed most Americans believed a nuclear World War III would begin within five years. As many as 200,000 homeowners began building their own shelters as well.
In the 1960s, governments surveyed tens of thousands of buildings around the country and designated them as shelters, stocking them with canned water and food.
In the 1970s, a new ethos, which suggested it was ridiculous to attempt to survive a nuclear war contributed to a sense a decline in interest in shelters. Most public shelters were stripped of food and water in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Today, most government agencies seem more focused on improving communication and formulating evacuation plans than on preparing to send the nation underground. But evacuation scenarios of most major cities in a time of crisis are fraught with trouble. Some fear those efforts will result in more casualties rather than fewer.
But shelters offer protection even from foreign nuclear events – wars and accidents that could pose radiation hazards around the world. Yet, there is no national system in place.
“If you call your local Emergency Management Office today, as the Federal Emergency Management Agency directs, to ask them where their fallout shelter is that your family should go to in a nuclear disaster, you’ll discover they don’t have one for you anymore,” says Shane Connor, author of “What To Do If A Nuclear Disaster Is Imminent!” “Clearly, until rectified, every family is on their own and needs to prepare a fallout shelter at home. Good news is, most all can, but only if they learn how to beforehand.”
Phil Smith, developer of the
keychain-size radiation detector Nukalert, emphasizes the importance of education.
“Sam Nunn asked: ‘The day after an attack, what would we wish we had done? Why aren’t we doing it now?’ Clearly, we would wish we had taught the public basic civil defense,” he says.
The largest and most recent study of the effects of nuclear detonations in major U.S. cities showed that, while millions will die, millions of others can be saved with some practical preparations and education.
The three-year study by researchers at the Center for Mass Destruction Defense at the University of Georgia found a concerted effort to teach civilians what to do in the event of a nuclear attack is the best – perhaps only – thing that could save an untold number of lives that will otherwise be needlessly lost.
“If a nuclear detonation were to occur in a downtown area, the picture would be bleak there,” said Cham Dallas, director of the program and professor in the college of pharmacy. “But in urban areas farther from the detonation, there actually is quite a bit that we can do. In certain areas, it may be possible to turn the death rate from 90 percent in some burn populations to probably 20 or 30 percent – and those are very big differences – simply by being prepared well in advance.”
The government’s own National Planning Scenario projects even a small, improvised 10-kiloton nuclear bomb would likely kill hundreds of thousands in a medium-sized city. The carnage was estimated at 204,600 dead in Washington, D.C. – with another 90,800 injured or sickened. Another 24,580 would likely die of thyroid cancer later because the simple compound potassium iodide, which can prevent it, was not made available to civilians in advance of the disaster.
President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and the 9/11 commission have all concluded a nuclear terrorist attack is not only the nation’s No. 1 nightmare but also something of an inevitability at some time in the future.
The University of Georgia study calls for a public awareness campaign to teach civilians what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. Even simple measures, the researchers point out, can save many lives. For instance, since radioactive clouds move downwind, a person can determine which way the wind is blowing and flee in a perpendicular direction to the wind. Even on foot, moving one to five miles can be the difference between life and death. On the other hand, though, people in areas upwind from the detonation site are better off staying put.
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