A nuclear attack on American soil would most likely target one of six cities: New York, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Washington DC.
However, a public health expert says either city would struggle to provide assistance to the injured.
Cities also no longer have designated fallout shelters to protect people from radiation.
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The chance of an atomic bomb hitting a US city is slim, but experts say it’s not out of the question.
A nuclear attack in a large metropolitan area is one of the 15 disaster scenarios for which the US Federal Emergency Management Agency has a contingency strategy. The agency’s plan includes deploying emergency services, providing immediate shelter to evacuees, and decontaminating victims who have been exposed to radiation.
For ordinary citizens, FEMA has some simple advice: get inside, stay inside, and stay informed.
But according to Irwin Redlener, a public health expert at Columbia University who specializes in disaster preparedness, these federal guidelines are not enough to prepare a city for a nuclear attack.
“There is not a single jurisdiction in America that has anything close to a proper plan for dealing with a nuclear detonation,” he said.
This includes the six urban areas that Redlener says are the most likely targets for a nuclear attack: New York, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington DC. Not only are these cities among the largest and densest in the country, but they are also home to critical infrastructure (such as power plants, financial centers, government facilities, and wireless transmission systems) that are vital to U.S. security.
Every city has an emergency management website that informs citizens about what to do in an emergency, but most of these websites (with the exception of Los Angeles and New York) do not directly mention a nuclear attack. This makes it difficult for residents to learn how to protect themselves should a bomb hit one of these cities.
“It wouldn’t be the end of life as we know it,” Redlener said of the script. “It would just be a terrifying catastrophic disaster with many, many unknown and cascading consequences.”
Cities may struggle to provide emergency services after a nuclear attack
Nuclear bombs can produce clouds of dust and sand-like radioactive particles that disperse into the atmosphere – known as nuclear fallout. Exposure to this fallout can cause radiation poisoning, which can damage the body’s cells and prove fatal.
It takes at least 15 minutes for the debris to reach ground level after the blast, so human response during this period could be a matter of life and death. People can protect themselves from the fallout by immediately seeking shelter in the middle or basement of a brick, steel, or concrete building—preferably without windows.
“A little information can save a lot of lives,” Brooke Buddemeier, a health physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, told Business Insider. Buddemeier advises emergency managers on how to protect the population from nuclear attacks.
“If we can just get people inside, we can significantly reduce their exposure,” he said.
According to Redlener, the most important scenario to prepare for is not an all-out nuclear war, but a single nuclear explosion, such as a missile launch from North Korea. He said that at the moment North Korean missiles are able to reach Alaska or Hawaii, but could soon reach cities on the west coast.
Another source of attack could be a nuclear device that has been built, purchased or stolen by a terrorist organization. All six cities identified by Redlener have been listed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as “Level 1” areas, meaning they are considered to be where a terrorist attack would cause the most damage.
“There is no safe city,” Redlener said. “In New York, the detonation of a bomb the size of Hiroshima, or even a little smaller, could cause 50,000 to 100,000 deaths – depending on the time of day and where the action took place – and hundreds of thousands of people injured.”
Some estimates are even higher. Figures by Alex Wellerstein, a nuclear weapons historian at the Stevens Institute of Technology, indicate that a 15 kiloton explosion (like the one in Hiroshima) would cause more than 225,000 deaths and 610,000 injuries in New York City.
Under these circumstances, even the entire state of New York would not have enough hospital beds to handle the wounded.
“New York State has 40,000 hospital beds, almost all of which are occupied at all times,” Redlener said.
He also expressed concern about what might happen to the rescuers who tried to help.
“Are we really going to order National Guard troops or US troops to go to highly radioactive zones? Are we going to get bus drivers to come in and pick up people to take them to safety?” he said. “Any strategic or tactical response is full of imperfections.”
Large cities do not have designated fallout shelters
In 1961, around the height of the Cold War, the United States launched the Community Fallout Shelter Program, which designated safe places to hide after a nuclear attack in cities across the country. Most of the shelters were located on the upper floors of high-rise buildings, so they were intended to protect people only from radiation, not from the explosion itself.
Cities were responsible for supplying these shelters with food and sanitation and medical supplies paid for by the federal government. By the time funds for the program were exhausted in the 1970s, New York had designated 18,000 fallout shelters to protect up to 11 million people.
In 2017, New York City officials began removing the yellow signs that once marked these shelters to avoid the misconception that they were still active.
Redlener said there’s a reason shelters don’t exist anymore: big cities like New York and San Francisco need more affordable housing, making it harder for city officials to justify reserving space for food and medical supplies.
“Can you imagine a government official keeping buildings intact as fallout shelters when the real estate market is so tight?” Redner said.
“It’s part of our 21st century reality”
Redlener said many city officials fear that even offering plans to respond to a nuclear blast could create panic among residents.
“There is a concern among government officials that if they went out and publicly said, ‘Here’s what you need to know in the event of a nuclear attack,’ a lot of people would be concerned that the mayor knew something the public didn’t know,” he said. he said.
But educating the public doesn’t have to be scary, Buddemeier said.
“The good news is that ‘Get in, stay in, stay informed’ still works,” he said. “I compared it to ‘Stop, drop and roll.’ If your clothes catch fire, that’s what you should do. Let’s hope it doesn’t make you afraid of fire, but it does give you the opportunity to take action to save your life.”
Both experts agreed that for a city to be prepared for a nuclear attack, it must recognize that such an attack is possible—even if the threat is remote.
“It’s part of our 21st century reality,” Redlener said. “I apologized to my children and grandchildren for leaving the world in such a terrible mess, but it is what it is now.”
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