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There are thousands of signposts for nuclear shelters in New York: why none of them will save you in the event of an attack


Nadezhda Verbitskaya

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This summer New York authorities published instructions about what people should do in the event of a nuclear attack. But if an atomic bomb does explode in the city, experts do not advise hiding in a building with a sign "Fallout Shelter" (Fallout Shelter), reports Gothamist.

Thousands of black-and-yellow signs marking such shelters are still visible on buildings throughout the city's five boroughs. They mark places where New Yorkers allegedly could take refuge from the deadly radioactivity of a nuclear explosion more than 50 years ago.

In those days, these shelters were mostly windowless concrete buildings, stuffed with canned food and water supplies so that people could hold out for several days. But they were never what they hoped for in terms of protection. In truth, it doesn't matter if these shelters work or not. If a nuclear bomb had gone off in New York, most people would have died in the first explosion.

Psychological trick

The fallout shelter signs are the remnants of an ill-conceived program that was designed by the city to quell American fears and anxieties during the Cold War.

“I am amazed at the fraud that has been committed against the public. And let's give New Yorkers credit: they knew it was ridiculous, it was a scam,” said Dr. Jeffrey Kessler, an associate professor of New York history.

The now-defunct Civil Defense Administration - the forerunner of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) - once estimated that 230 sites in New York were designated as fallout shelters. But by the 000s, fallout shelters were a thing of the past when Congress stopped funding the program.

On the subject: New York issued instructions in case of a nuclear attack on the city

Fallout shelter architecture standards were set decades ago. And their scientific basis has not changed. Nuclear physics is nuclear physics, so the scientific basis for shelters has not changed. Radioactive material can remain in the air for a long time. Therefore, FEMA states that HEPA air filters or a functional equivalent are required to provide a high level of protection in shelters. HEPA filters are classified as absolute filters. For the first time, these types of filters were developed in the 1940s and were used to clean the air from dangerous radioactive elements.

These principles require specific designs or materials. One federal guideline states that concrete walls and ceilings between 100 and 130 centimeters thick are needed to completely block gamma radiation. These conditions were not met in almost no shelter in New York, they were simply equipped with basements or laundries in houses.

Find the extreme

The problem now is that no one knows in whose jurisdiction these refuge signs are located, and how many of them are left. The Civil Defense Administration was liquidated in the 1970s and its assets were transferred to FEMA. But neither the New York City Emergency Management Agency nor any other city department has a plan to monitor fallout shelter signs in the city's five boroughs. Therefore, they remain on the buildings, but the shelters are not maintained and have not been checked for a long time.

Today, many fallout shelters in New York City have been converted back into laundries and other public spaces. It is not known how many of these signs still exist in the New York area.

But now that nuclear tensions with Russia are rising again, Jeff Schlegelmilch, director of the National Disaster Preparedness Center at Columbia University's Earth Institute, says those useless signs should be removed to avoid confusion.

“I have mixed feelings about them as historical artifacts,” says Schlegelmilch. I like to see these old signs. But this sign indicates that there supposedly is something that is not really there.”

Shelter signs: origin story

In 1961, then-New York Governor J. Nelson Rockefeller convinced the state legislature to spend approximately $15 million on a fallout shelter program. Rockefeller was convinced of a Soviet nuclear attack, so he set up shelters under the governor's mansion in Albany and in three of his private residences.

That same year, John F. Kennedy assumed the presidency. He launched a nationwide fallout shelter program.

At that time, the newly created Civil Defense Administration set to work identifying hundreds of thousands of buildings that could be used as shelters.

Robert W. Blakely was the director of administrative logistics for the US Army Corps of Engineers. He designed signage for the Fallout Shelter project.

“Whatever we designed, it had to be used in downtown New York, in Manhattan, when all the lights are off and people are on the street and don't know where to go,” Blakely said.

He also presented the first prototype on October 4, 1961 in White Plains.

Over the years, signs consisting of three yellow triangles connected inside a black circle have appeared on buildings all over New York - in schools, apartments, and even on the Brooklyn Bridge.

If a nuclear explosion ever occurs, it is best to stay indoors rather than try to evacuate. And stay tuned for notifications.

Those who were on the street during a nuclear attack need to find shelter away from the explosion. Once inside, these people need to take off their clothes to prevent the radioactive material from getting onto their skin.

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