This summer, New York City officials released a public service announcement about what people should do in case of nuclear Armageddon. But if an atomic bomb does explode in the city, experts advise against taking cover in a building with a fallout shelter sign.
Thousands of these black-and-yellow signs still remain on structures throughout the city’s five boroughs, marking locations where New Yorkers could take refuge from the deadly radioactivity of a nuke — more than 50 years ago.
Back then, these shelters were mostly concrete windowless rooms packed with canned goods and water supplies to sustain people for days — but they were never all they were cracked up to be in terms of protection. In truth, it didn't matter if the shelters worked or not; if a nuclear bomb went off, most people would be dead from the initial blast.
Fallout shelter signs are the last remnants of an ill-conceived program that was designed to quell the fears and anxieties of Americans who had little faith in the shelters to begin with.
“I'm really struck at the enormous fraud that was perpetrated on the public,” says Dr. Jeffrey Kroessler, an associate professor who specializes in New York City history and is the interim chief librarian at John Jay College. “And let's give New Yorkers credit. They knew that this was ridiculous. That it was a fraud; that there is no such thing as survivability.”
The now-defunct Office of Civil Defense — a precursor to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA — once estimated that 230,000 sites in New York City were designated fallout shelters. But by the 1970s, fallout shelters became a thing of the past when Congress stopped funding the program.
Architecture standards for nuclear fallout shelters were set decades ago and their scientific backing hasn’t changed. Nuclear physics is nuclear physics. Radioactive material can last in the air for a long time, so FEMA says high levels of protection require HEPA air filters or a functional equivalent.
These principles also call for specific designs or materials — one federally cited guide states 40-to-50-inch concrete walls and roofs would be needed to fully block gamma radiation. These helpful attributes may or may not be present in your building’s basement laundry room.
The problem now is that no one seems to know to whom the signs belong or how many of them are left, since the Office of Civil Defense was scrapped in the 1970s and subsumed by FEMA. Neither NYC Emergency Management, the city's education department, nor FEMA have a plan to track down the fallout shelter signs across the five boroughs, so they remain.
Today, many of New York City's fallout shelters have been turned back into laundry rooms and other communal spaces that aren't meant to protect residents from a deadly attack. There’s no way of telling how many of these signs still exist around New York City, besides consulting unofficial maps.
I love seeing these old signs. But at the end of the day, it's a sign that indicates that something's there, and it's not there.
But now that nuclear tensions with Russia are on the rise again, Jeff Schlegelmilch, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University's Earth Institute, says the city’s signs should be removed to avoid confusion.
“I have mixed feelings on it as a historical artifact,” says Schlegelmilch. “I love seeing these old signs. But at the end of the day, it's a sign that indicates that something's there, and it's not there, and in the extremely off chance that something happens and someone sees that sign, it could be pointing someone in the wrong direction.”
Fallout signs: An origin story
In 1961, New York’s then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller convinced the state legislature to spend roughly $15 million on a state fallout shelter program. Rockefeller was so convinced of a Soviet nuclear attack that he reportedly installed shelters under the governor’s mansion in Albany and at his three private residences.
That same year, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated as president and launched a nationwide fallout shelter program intended to ease the nation’s anxieties.
At the time, the newly created Office of Civil Defense went to work identifying the hundreds of thousands of buildings that could be used as shelter sites. But signage to help the public to find the shelters seemed like an afterthought for the federal government.
Robert W. Blakeley was the director of administrative logistics for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when he designed the signs for the fallout shelter project.
“Whatever we developed, it would have to be usable in downtown New York City, Manhattan, when all the lights are out and people are on the street and don’t know where to go,” Blakeley told blogger Bill Geerhart for a 2011 post on the Cold War history site Conelrad Adjacent.
Blakeley unveiled the first prototype on Oct. 4, 1961 in White Plains. It would go on to become an icon of the Cold War era.
Over the years, the signs, with their design of three yellow triangles joined inside a black circle, popped up on buildings all over New York City, on schools, apartments, and even the Brooklyn Bridge.
Why fallout signs are still up
New York City’s Department of Education agreed with the premise that fallout shelter signs could be misleading, and in December 2017, they removed and stored more than 1,000 of the signs from public schools and other buildings the agency manages, a department spokesperson told Gothamist. The number of fallout shelter signs removed from city public schools has not previously been reported.
They added that the department does not have a central list of fallout shelter signs on its properties. This makes it difficult to determine if all of the signs have been removed.
An NYC Emergency Management spokesperson said the agency also began removing signs on NYCHA housing in 2017 and that it does not keep track of them. They agreed that there needs to be a more concerted effort in removing the signs.
“There is something really special about what these reminds us of in our history,” Schlegelmilch says. “But we just have to be careful that that doesn't get confused as a guidepost of what to do in an actual disaster today.”
If a nuclear explosion were ever to happen, NYC Emergency Management says the best thing to do is to stay inside, rather than attempt to evacuate, and "stay tuned for alerts.”
For those who find themselves outside during a nuclear attack, Schlegelmilch suggests finding shelter quickly as far from the blast as possible. Once inside, he says people should remove their clothes to prevent radioactive material from coming into contact with their skin.