New York's 'fallout shelter' signs remain relics of history

The 1951 film Duck and Cover, produced by the U.S. Civil Defense Administration and shot at a school in Astoria, Queens, demonstrates what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. "You know the places marked with the 'S' sign?" a plucky narrator says. "They're safe places to go when you hear the alarm."

Those "S" signs transitioned to the more recognizable black and a yellow fallout shelter placards still affixed to a smattering of buildings in New York and many other cities, towns and school campuses in the decades that followed, as the capability and might of the Soviet nuclear arsenal rendered a civilian bunker program unfeasible.

"They really reached their peak under the Kennedy administration," Deputy Director Jeff Schlegelmilch of the Columbia University Earth Institute's National Center for Disaster Preparedness told FOX 5 NY.

At that time, Schlegelmilch estimates, 18,000 municipal and private buildings in New York City housed fallout shelters stocked with medical supplies, food, water and blankets.

"No matter where we live," the Duck and Cover narrator says, "in the city or the country, we must be ready all the time for the atomic bomb."

"They bolted these really cool-looking signs to the side of the building and forgot about them," Schlegelmilch said.

In the late 1970s, FEMA assumed responsibility for civil defense, thermonuclear weapons further reduced the survivability of a nuclear attack and fallout shelters fell into disrepair.

"The [program] never really had a clear startup or a clear shutdown," Schlegelmilch said.

The city's Department of Education scheduled a clear shutdown in 2017, removing the signs from all of its buildings to avoid the confusion of someone fleeing there in an emergency and finding a locked building with no survival supplies inside.

"The irony is: The notion of protecting yourself from fallout is actually more relevant now than it was at the peak of the fallout shelter program," Schlegelmilch said.

For four decades during the Cold War, a nuclear attack almost certainly guaranteed nuclear annihilation at the behest of one of two superpowers with massive nuclear arsenals. In 2019, we face the threat of smaller kiloton devices wielded by not only more players but also, likely, more erratic ones.

"Glass isn't really great at shielding from radiation, but these old concrete, brick buildings are actually very effective," Schlegelmilch said.

And Schlegelmilch said most homes and workplaces contain a place—often in the middle of the building, often in the basement—that will protect us from radiation for the 24 hours (and no longer multiple weeks) we need to shelter there. We just need to find a way to disseminate this information without declaring a Nuclear Attack Preparedness Day ("Then everyone's thinking: Well, what do you know that I don't?" Schlegelmilch said) and to make clear those old fallout signs no longer indicate an upkeep shelter.

"[Those are] historical relics," Schlegelmilch said. "It's not a public safety guidepost like it was back in the day."


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