A nuclear attack would most likely target one of these 6 US cities – but an expert says none of them are ready

An illustration of a nuclear bomb exploding in a city.Shutterstock

  • A nuclear attack on US soil would most likely target one of six cities: New York, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco or Washington, DC.

  • But a public health expert said any of those cities would struggle to provide emergency services to the injured.

  • Cities also no longer designated fallout shelters to protect people from radiation.

  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The likelihood of a nuclear bomb hitting a US city is slim, but nuclear experts say it’s not out of the question.

A nuclear attack in a major metropolitan area is one of 15 disaster scenarios for which the US Federal Emergency Management Agency has an emergency strategy. The agency’s plan is to deploy first responders, provide immediate shelter for evacuees, and decontaminate victims who have been exposed to radiation.

For everyday citizens, FEMA has some simple advice: Get in, stay in, and stay tuned.

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 comes close to having an adequate plan to deal with a nuclear explosion,” he said.

This includes the six urban areas that Redlener says are the most likely targets of nuclear attack: New York, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, DC. These cities are not only among the largest and densest in the country, but are home to critical infrastructure (such as power plants, financial centers, government facilities, and wireless transmission systems) that are vital to state security. -United.

Every city has an emergency management website that tells citizens what to do in a crisis, but most of those sites (except LA and New York) don’t directly mention an attack. nuclear. This makes it difficult for residents to learn how to protect themselves if a bomb were to hit one of these towns.

“It wouldn’t be the end of life as we know it,” Redlener said of that storyline. “It would just be a horrific, catastrophic disaster with many, many unknown and cascading consequences.”

Cities may struggle to provide emergency services after nuclear strike

Nuclear bombs can produce clouds of sand-like dust and radioactive particles that scatter through the atmosphere – known as nuclear fallout. Exposure to these fallout can lead to radiation poisoning, which can damage cells in the body and prove fatal.

Debris takes at least 15 minutes to reach ground level after an explosion, so a person’s response during that time could be a matter of life and death. People can protect themselves from fallout by immediately seeking refuge in the center 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 populations against nuclear attacks.

“If we can just get people inside, we can significantly reduce their exposure,” he said.

The most important scenario to prepare for, according to Redlener, is not an all-out nuclear war, but a single nuclear explosion such as a missile launch from North Korea. At present, he said, North Korean missiles are capable of reaching Alaska or Hawaii, but they could soon reach cities on the West Coast.

Another source of attack could be a nuclear device built, purchased or stolen by a terrorist organization. The six cities identified by Redlener are listed as “Tier 1” areas by the US Department of Homeland Security, meaning they are considered places where a terrorist attack would cause the most damage.

“There is no safe city,” Redlener said. “In New York, the explosion of a bomb the size of Hiroshima, or even a bomb a little smaller, could cause between 50,000 and 100,000 deaths – depending on the time of day and the where the action struck – and hundreds of thousands injured.”

New York nuclear attack

An estimate of the damage caused by a 15 kiloton explosion in New York. Heat radiation can lead to third-degree burns, while an air blast could kill people and topple residential buildings.Nukemap 2.65/Alex Wellerstein/Google Earth/Business Insider

Some estimates are even higher. Data from Alex Wellerstein, a nuclear weapons historian at the Stevens Institute of Technology, indicates that a 15 kiloton explosion (like the Hiroshima one) would cause more than 225,000 deaths and 610,000 injuries in New York City.

Under these circumstances, even the whole of New York State would not have enough hospital beds to care for the injured.

“New York State has 40,000 hospital beds, almost all of them permanently occupied,” Redlener said.

He also expressed concern about what could happen to emergency responders who tried to help.

“Are we really going to order National Guard troops or American soldiers into highly radioactive areas? Are we going to ask the bus drivers to pick people up to get them to safety? he said. “Every strategic or tactical response is full of shortcomings.”

Major cities do not have designated fallout shelters

In 1961, at 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 on the upper floors of high-rise buildings, so they were intended to protect people only from radiation and not from the explosion itself.

Cities were responsible for stocking these shelters with food, sanitation and medical supplies paid for by the federal government. By the time funding for the program ran out in the 1970s, New York City had designated 18,000 fallout shelters to protect up to 11 million people.

New York Fallout Shelter.JPG

A sign for a fallout shelter on a building in Brooklyn.Brendan McDermid/Reuters

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 the shelters no longer exist: Big cities like New York and San Francisco need more affordable housing, making it difficult for city officials to justify reserving space. for food and medical supplies.

“Can you imagine a civil servant keeping buildings intact for fallout shelters when the real estate market is so tight?” said Redler.

“It’s part of our reality in the 21st century”

Redlener said many city officials are concerned that even offering nuclear blast response plans will cause panic among residents.

“There are public officials who are concerned that if they went out and said publicly, ‘This is what you need to know in the event of a nuclear attack,’ then a lot of people would be concerned that the mayor would know something that the public doesn’t. didn’t know,” he added. said.

But educating the public doesn’t have to be scary, Buddemeier said.

“The good news is that ‘Come inside, stay inside, stay tuned’ still works,” he said. “I sort of liken it to ‘Stop, drop and roll.’ possibility of taking 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 mess, but that’s how it is now.”

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