Last month, North Korea tested their latest and most advanced ballistic missile platform to date, the Hwasong-15, and although its reentry vehicle appeared to fail, the platform itself proved capable of covering enough distance to place cities on America’s eastern seaboard within its potential range. For the first time since the Cold War, Americans on the East Coast face the threat of nuclear annihilation from a posturing national opponent, prompting some to take a second look at the remaining facets of a nuclear era now long past.
In New York City, one of the most common reminders of the dark days of the Soviet nuclear threat look like they might be more at home in a video game than adorning the buildings on either side of America’s busiest streets. With three triangles and two words, these signs once offered the promise of safety, even survival if the worst were ever to occur – when the bombs dropped, every American in New York City needed only to find one of these signs and follow it to a nearby fallout shelter.
Today, however, these signs offer little in the way of safety, and could actually lead to a higher casualty rate if a nuclear strike were to occur. As a result, New York City has begun a new effort to remove these signs from many public buildings like schools.
The fallout shelters at the other ends of the these signs were once maintained in large part through federal funding – funding that has long since dried up. If a nuclear blast were to occur now, following most of these signs would likely lead to old, sealed doors, or the basements of buildings that don’t permit access. While they were once tied to shelters the federal government believed would be the city’s best hope of survival, the signs now are all that remains of most of these safe havens. As a result, the New York board of education has authorized their removal from public schools, and separate efforts are underway to remove them from other public structures.
Of course, as is the case with any government endeavor, the removal of the signs requires navigating a complex system of overlapping authority. The signs themselves were paid for and installed by the federal government, but many were installed on city or state property. With the program responsible for the signs (and the shelters) long gone, just who has the authority to order them taken down is fairly murky water. Thus far, however, none of the echelons of governmental oversight has taken issue with the subject, though, that may be in part because they weren’t consulted.
Michael Aciman, a department of education spokesman, confirmed that none of the fallout shelters once maintained under New York City public schools are still active, and in the event of an emergency, the general public should not head straight for their nearest high school in search of safety. He also declined to discuss whether or not the federal government was informed of the decision to remove the signs.
It’s unlikely that the department of education would have faced a fight anyway. “FEMA does not have a position regarding the signs,” Jenny Burke, a FEMA spokeswoman told the press when asked about the new initiative.
Since the days the federal government was maintaining and supplying these shelters, the general survival strategy for a nuclear strike has changed. Now, experts recommend sheltering in place, preferably in a windowless basement or in the center of the building, in order to protect yourself from harmful fallout. Notifications of such an attack would now be sent out via text message to phones within the geographical area.
“Nuclear explosion reported. Shelter in basement/center of building, close windows/doors,” is the current iteration of the text that would be sent out to New York City residents if such an attack were ever to occur.
“Every single time I look at it I change it a little bit,” Eliot Calhoun, the city’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosives Planner, said. “When you only have 90 characters and you’re trying to save lives you can really think too much about it.”
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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