New York pulling misleading nuclear fallout shelter signs

Even as North Korea whips up anxieties over its nuclear capabilities, New York City has quietly begun removing some of the corroding yellow nuclear fallout shelter signs added to thousands of buildings during the Cold War, saying many are misleading relics that would not be useful in the event of a real attack.

The small metal signs are a remnant of the nuclear arms race between the United States and the former Soviet Union, which prompted President John F. Kennedy to create the shelter program in 1961 in cities across America.

Although New Yorkers may barely notice the signs, many remain in place, a reminder that the threat of nuclear annihilation has not disappeared. Indeed, North Korea is working to develop nuclear-tipped missiles that could hit America, while the U.S. maintains a nuclear arsenal of more than 4,000 weapons.

If there ever is a nuclear strike in the New York City area, the signs, thousands of which linger, would be best ignored, city officials and disaster preparedness experts told Reuters.

Any survivors hoping that the signs point to safety would most likely find themselves pounding on locked doors or breaking into areas that are currently used for laundry rooms and bike storage. The maintenance of the shelter system ended decades ago, according to Reuters.

The city’s Department of Education wants to remove some of the signs for these shelters from public schools to eliminate any confusion.

A fallout shelter sign over the entrance to P.S. 38 in Brooklyn.

A fallout shelter sign over the entrance to P.S. 38 in Brooklyn. (Reuters)

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Michael Aciman, a department spokesman, confirmed to Reuters that any designated fallout shelters created in the city’s schools are no longer active. He said the department is aiming to finish unscrewing the signs from school walls by roughly Jan. 1. City officials say this is the first coordinated effort to remove the signs.

“FEMA does not have a position regarding the signs,” Jenny Burke, an agency spokeswoman, wrote in an email to Reuters on Tuesday. Although FEMA does not maintain lists of the old shelter locations, she added, “as a part of an ongoing planning effort, the agency is conducting research to retrieve Office of Civilian Defense records.”

The city’s removal plan has reportedly been somewhat haphazard: on one Brooklyn street, a sign on a school photographed by Reuters this month was subsequently removed, while a second school a few blocks away still had its sign attached, but with a screw missing.

Were a nuclear explosion to occur, those far enough from the blast center to survive would do well to head to the lower interiors of any standard building, preferably a windowless basement, to shelter from radioactive particles outside.

NYC Emergency Management, the agency that runs the city’s disaster preparations, was not involved in the decision but staff there welcomed the signs’ removal. Nancy Silvestri, the agency’s press secretary, said that even once the signs are gone from schools, many will remain on apartment buildings and other structures.