Head for the…Fallout Shelter?

The Curmudgeon’s first year of high school – 1970, if you must know – coincided with the school’s 20th anniversary. As part of the celebration a local television station sent one of its reporters, himself an alumnus, to visit the school. While unloading the camera equipment in the parking lot the reporter and his crew passed a car with its trunk open and absolutely filled to the brim with…pills.

34,000 pills, actually, which had been stolen from the school’s basement, which was an official U.S. government fallout shelter. You remember fallout shelters: the places where, in the 1950s and 1960s, the government told people they were supposed to go when the Russians attacked the U.S. with nuclear weapons. The pills were Phenobarbital and were there to calm – okay, sedate – what were expected to be a lot of pretty hysterical people.

In the schools The Curmudgeon attended kids sat in the hallways. In others they took cover under their desks.

Even before high school The Curmudgeon recalls participating “retention drills” – he has no idea what the drillers may have been working to retain – that he understands were called “air raid drills” elsewhere. A siren would sound and we were instructed to pick up a book and our oilcloth – the things we put on top of our desks at the end of the day before lifting our chairs onto the desks so the room could be swept or mopped – and proceed out of the classroom in an orderly manner. We then moved to the hallway, away from glass that might be shattering when the bombs hit, as if that was what posed the greatest threat to our safety. There, we sat on our oilcloths and read our books and waited calmly for further instructions while Armageddon was being waged out in the schoolyard between the hopscotch and dodge ball areas. The Curmudgeon recalls an episode of Happy Days about a bomb shelter and an episode of The West Wing that was a variation on the theme, with some of the president’s staff receiving cards inviting them to the president’s bomb shelter in the event of enemy attack and other staff members left to fend for themselves with the rest of us.

So why this reverie about the threat of nuclear war?

Because the threat appears to be growing. We seem closer to nuclear war today than we have been in nearly 30 years in light of North Korea’s nuclear threats and Agent Orange, inexplicably, practically daring Kim Jong-un to launch the first missile. The “my button is bigger than his button” nonsense of last week raised stupid to new heights and is the kind of thing you might expect from one of those little kids with their oilcloths and books rather than from the person who’s supposed to be leader of the free world but is more like a member of McMurphy’s little group rebelling against that nasty Nurse Ratched.

It looks like a lot of people are waking up to the possibility that nuclear war at least looks possible in the current, insane political climate. In fact, sales of over-the-counter pills like potassium iodide that are supposed to help protect people from the effects of radiation have skyrocketed in the two weeks since the president’s moronic “my button is bigger than his button” tweet.

And it looks like our government, too, is actively planning for such a possibility.

At least that’s the impression one might get from an event being held in New York City today, where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – the CDC – is presenting a workshop titled “Public Health Response to a Nuclear Detonation.”

Because our government now apparently views nuclear war as being enough of a possibility to prepare us for it.

Okay, take a moment to compose yourself. Exhale.

According to the New York Times, the workshop is

…for doctors, government officials, emergency responders and others whom, if they survived, would be responsible for overseeing the emergency response to a nuclear attack.

“If they survived” being the key phrase here.

Here’s how the CDC describes the workshop on its web site:

While a nuclear detonation is unlikely, it would have devastating results and there would be limited time to take critical protection steps. Despite the fear surrounding such an event, planning and preparation can lessen deaths and illness.  For instance, most people don’t realize that sheltering in place for at least 24 hours is crucial to saving lives and reducing exposure to radiation. While federal, state, and local agencies will lead the immediate response efforts, public health will play a key role in responding.

Join us for this session of Grand Rounds to learn what public health programs have done on a federal, state, and local level to prepare for a nuclear detonation. Learn how planning and preparation efforts for a nuclear detonation are similar and different from other emergency response planning efforts.

While the CDC dismisses concern about the timing of this workshop, insisting it has been in the planning stages since April – are we supposed to find that comforting? – it conveniently overlooks that it hasn’t offered such a workshop since 2010.

Which raises the obvious question of “Why now?”

And lest you think the folks running this gala aren’t dead serious about what they’re doing – sorry for the unfortunately choice of adjectives – take a gander at the sessions on the workshop agenda:

  • “Preparing for the Unthinkable”
  • “Roadmap to Radiation Preparedness”
  • “Using Data and Decision Aids to Drive Response Efforts”

Doesn’t inspire much confidence for the future, does it? Well, at least not as long as Kim Jong-un and Kim Jong-Trump are fingering their respective buttons and Agent Orange figures that any bomb aimed at the White House isn’t terribly likely to find him there anyway.

So in the meantime…


Just as it makes sense to pay attention to your flight attendant’s brief explanation of what to do in the event of a crash or water landing, now may be the time to figure out where the nearest bomb shelter might be.

Because it looks like our government thinks we might be needing it sometime soon. After all, a lot of people took seriously that little mistake in Hawaii last weekend because in the current environment and with this current president…it just doesn’t seem that implausible anymore.

(Post script:  It turns out that The Curmudgeon wasn’t the only one who noticed this unusual event.  After three dozen media outlets applied to attend, the CDC, clearly spooked, canceled the event and decided to hold a workshop on influenza instead.  This happened after The Curmudgeon wrote and posted this piece but before it appeared.

But still…)

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