For everyday citizens, FEMA has some simple advice: Get inside, stay inside, and stay tuned.
Cities might struggle to provide emergency services after a nuclear strike
The most important scenario to prepare for, according to Redlener, isn’t all-out nuclear war, but a single nuclear explosion such as a missile launch from North Korea. Right now, he said, North Korean missiles are capable of reaching Alaska or Hawaii, but they could soon be able to reach cities along the West Coast.
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 one in Hiroshima) would result in more than 225,000 fatalities and 610,000 injuries in New York City.
“New York state has 40,000 hospital beds, almost all of which are occupied all the time,” Redlener said.
He also expressed concern about what might happen to emergency responders who tried to help.
Big cities don’t have designated fallout shelters
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: Major cities like New York and San Francisco are in need of more affordable housing, making it difficult for city officials to justify reserving space for food and medical supplies.
“Can you imagine a public official keeping buildings intact for fallout shelters when the real-estate market is so tight?” Redlener said.
‘This is part of our 21st-century reality’
Redlener said many city authorities worry that even offering nuclear-explosion response plans might induce panic among residents.
“There’s fear among public officials that if they went out and publicly said, ‘This is what you need to know in the event of a nuclear attack,’ then many people would fear that the mayor knew something that the public did not,” he said.
But educating the public doesn’t have to be scary, Buddemeier said.
“The good news is that ‘Get inside, stay inside, stay tuned’ still works,” he said. “I kind of liken it to ‘Stop, drop, and roll.’ If your clothes catch on fire, that’s what you should do. It doesn’t make you afraid of fire, hopefully, but it does allow 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 acknowledge that such an attack is possible — even if the threat is remote.
“This is part of our 21st-century reality,” Redlener said. “I’ve apologized to my children and grandchildren for leaving the world in such a horrible mess, but it is what it is now.”