While the possibility of a nuclear attack in Los Angeles seems almost unthinkable, local officials are inventorying hundreds of old bomb and fallout shelters as part of their preparations for a “radiological or nuclear event.”
Los Angeles and other metropolitan areas are drafting emergency plans while federal agencies study how to prepare the public for what county public health Director Jonathan Fielding describes as a “low-likelihood, huge-consequences event.”
His department hosted a workshop last week for the emergency operations staff of the county’s 88 cities in preparation for “Golden Phoenix,” an exercise scheduled for June 2010 that simulates the scenario of a 10-kiloton nuclear device detonated in Los Angeles.
A seminar is planned for the medical community on Jan. 21 to provide information on what to expect and what actions they should take after a nuclear incident.
“These aren’t comfortable things to talk about, but it all begins with preparations,” said Angelo Bellomo, the county director of environmental health who oversees the Radiation Management unit.
“We think this is a great opportunity for us to open a dialogue with the 88 cities so they can begin to amend their emergency plans to include planning for a nuclear device.”
Fears of nuclear destruction have their roots in the Cold War, when governments and residents built bomb and fallout shelters to protect occupants from radioactive debris. Interest in such civil defense activities was renewed in recent years amid fears that a terrorist group or rogue nation like Iran or North Korea might gain access to nuclear weapons.
The federal Homeland Security Council is urging state and local governments to prepare in the event of a nuclear detonation in a major city.
And Matthew Chandler, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, said the Federal Emergency Management Agency is studying how to incorporate a nuclear detonation scenario into a citizen preparedness campaign.
Obama brought the issue to the public’s attention during a speech at West Point on Dec. 1, when he called for a troop surge in Afghanistan.
“The stakes are even higher within a nuclear-armed Pakistan, because we know that al Qaeda and other extremists seek nuclear weapons, and we have every reason to believe that they would use them,” Obama said.
Experts are also concerned about nuclear threats posed by Iran and North Korea and, to a lesser extent, China and Russia. The president of Iran has threatened to wipe Israel off the map and experts believe North Korea has missiles that can hit the West Coast.
Experts are especially concerned about the possibility that Iran one day could launch ship-based nuclear missiles, said Brian Kennedy, president of The Claremont Institute’s Ballistic Missile Defense Project.
“The West Coast of the U.S. has limited missile defense against a North Korean missile,” Kennedy said. “And, unfortunately, we’re almost completely vulnerable to a ship-launched ballistic missile attack.”
Kennedy is also concerned a ship-launched nuclear missile detonated at a high altitude would create an electromagnetic pulse, possibly destroying electronic equipment and knocking out the nation’s power grid – leaving the country with little or no communications and no ability to provide food and water to potentially hundreds of millions of people.
Congressional reports suggest such an attack could result in more than 100 million deaths in a year, said Sharon Packer, executive director of the American Civil Defense Association.
“I don’t mean to minimize the efforts of Los Angeles County in creating fallout shelters,” Packer said. “It is very important and a wonderful first step. The larger concern, in my estimation, is in the protection of our electrical grid and the storage of additional transformers to assure the continuance of our infrastructure.”
The county’s efforts to inventory its bomb and fallout shelters follows the recent discovery of a 1975 book by the county’s Emergency Preparedness Commission, “Los Angeles County & Cities Public Shelter Directory,” which lists 6,200 fallout shelters with a capacity of 14.5 million people.
The shelters, including hundreds in the San Fernando Valley, include the basements and similarly protected areas in places such as hospitals, government buildings, courthouses, post offices, churches, movie studios, parking garages and tunnels. Many businesses are also listed, including McDonald’s, J.C. Penney Co. and even a cellar at the Budweiser plant.
Ken Kondo, spokesman for the county’s Office of Emergency Management, said the recent 50th anniversary of the county’s Civil Defense program piqued a lot of interest in the shelters, along with the post-apocalyptic films, “The Road” starring Viggo Mortensen and “The Book of Eli” starring Denzel Washington, slated for release in January.
“Hollywood is raising awareness about the aftermath of a mega disaster and what needs to be done to survive,” Kondo said. “So to Hollywood, we say, `Thank you.’ Now it’s up to us to start to locate and find these fallout and bomb shelters and make preparations and plans to utilize them in the event that people need to take shelter because of a terrorist attack or man-made event.”