What might a revived civil defense program look like in the United States? What may trigger the Federal government to implement civil defense actions and what impacts might those actions or inactions have on you, your family or your preparedness group’s plans for survival?
Where Civil Defense Ended
To understand what the federal government might do in the future for civil defense we need to start by looking at the past. In the 1950s through the 1970s American Civil Defense (CD) centered around “protecting” the population through fallout shelters. A massive undertaking surveyed building across the United States to deem them worthy of protecting occupants from the radiation caused by a nuclear war. After these shelters were identified and marked with signage, the federal government, in partnership with state and local governments started stocking the shelters with water, “food”, medical supplies and radiation detection equipment. Local Civil Defense organizations were established, and people were recruited and trained to manage theses shelters and how to use radiation detection equipment. Nearly all the standardized “food” supplies stocked in these shelters were just crackers made from bulgar wheat that did not last very long. The other “food” was a carbohydrate supplement, also known as hard candy. The US was now supposedly ready for an attack, or were we?
Civil Defense – Take Two
In 1979 the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was formed and took over civil defense duties. Soon after, the concept of Crisis Relocation was adopted by the United States government. Crisis relocation was the federal government’s admission that fallout shelters did nothing to protect the occupants from the blast, and heat effects from a nuclear explosion. Crisis relocation was calculated to save millions of lives from the effects of nuclear explosions, all by simply moving millions of people from America’s largest cities into less populated areas in about three days’ time.
Crisis Relocation had many detractors who pointed out the improbability that Crisis relocation would work. It was predicted that an evacuation of New York City would take about a week versus the requisite three days. In 1985 the concept and planning, “had been largely eliminated”, this according to an article in the New York Times. Before a new civil defense plan could be created, the Soviet Union collapse. The perceived need for civil defense collapsed with the Soviet Union. Since the mid-1990’s there have been no actions taken for civil defense for nuclear war for the civilian population.
The concept of a national fallout shelter system has been relegated to the history books and crisis relocation plans were only in their infancy when those efforts stopped as part of the “peace dividend”. The water, “food”, medical supplies and the radiation detection equipment in the fallout shelters has long ago expired, went out of clibration, and/or rotted. But more importantly, the people who were trained in the various functions of civil defense, are in their 70s and 80s and for the most part, have not kept up with their training. There are also no management or communications structures in place for dealing with civil defense forces, so current emergency management agencies could not even locate or determine who those former CD-trained volunteers are, or how to contact them. Ninety percent of the mediocre civil defense capability that the US had has disappeared. The 10% that remains goes to the continuity of government (COG), natural disaster relief, and national defense responsibilities that FEMA is still responsible for. But nothing for you or me.
Could we pick up where we left off? More importantly, should we even attempt re-establishing Crisis Relocation Planning? The concept of putting tens of thousands of people into smaller communities, compromised of a few thousand residents, and into shelters that will provide protection from radiation is highly unlikely. Why? Simply put the smaller “host” communities do not have the infrastructure to absorb those from large targeted cities. A small community of 10,000 residents will have schools and churches but most will not have the buildings to provide fallout shelters for both their own residents and thousands coming from the cities. One possibility is hastily dug trench shelters that can provide rudimentary shelter.
Many surveys and polls were done during the days of active civil defense. The surveys showed that Americans in the rural host areas would help the Americans coming out of the cities including some stating that they would shelter evacuating city dwellers in their homes. As America has become fractured along the various lines of the culture wars, I suspect that many rural residents would not be welcoming of those from cities. Considering that many preppers live or have bugout locations in less populated areas, crisis relocation could quickly overpopulate your rural area and present a major security and safety concern by creating a situation with too many people and not enough resources like food and water.
Many of the objections to the concept of Crisis Relocation came from those smaller communities that were deemed “host” communities. Considering the quote from the New York Times article in 1985, about crisis relocation planning being “largely eliminated” we can assume that some aspect of crisis relocation planning survived. I suspect that some form of planning was done to be able to activate a hasty evacuation (crisis relocation) if an international crisis rose to a level that necessitated it. Along with the fallout shelters were the thousands of trained volunteers who knew how to manage the fallout shelters and more importantly how to run the radiation detection equipment inside each shelter. Some of the radiation detection equipment can be found today, but mostly on eBay. (And most of it is out of calibration.) The question is how many people have educated themselves about not only how to operate the radiation detection equipment but about radiation in general? Unfortunately, we can’t pick up where we left off.
Do we even need to re-activate civil defense activities? First, the end of the Cold War should not have ended civil defense planning. Why? Because nuclear weapons did not disappear. The likelihood that those weapons would be used may have been diminished but that could change due to the ever-changing geopolitical landscape — as we are seeing and hearing in the present day. It is naïve to think that the number of nations with nuclear weapons would remain constant. Now we see nations, that are hostile to the United States, like North Korea and soon Iran that can or soon will be able to threaten the US with nuclear weapons.
Discontinuing civil defense efforts was also wrong since our civil defense efforts were also part of our strategic deterrence efforts. That is, our ability to survive a nuclear attack and launch a counterattack would dissuade an enemy from launching an attack in the first place. During the Cold War, all we had to be concerned about was the nuclear weapons from the Soviet Union. Today, we have to be concerned with the nuclear weapons capability of not only Russia but China, Pakistan, Iran, North Korea, and possibly some radical terrorist groups.
Even if the United States wanted to start civil defense efforts back up it may take Congress some time to pass enabling legislation since the Civil Defense Act of 1950 has also been mostly repealed. There are a lot of nuclear threats being made today and there are warning about war with nuclear-armed China as well. We may not need a civil defense system like we had in the past but we do need a program to, at the very least, educate the nation about some basic preparedness measures.
(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2,)