Fleets of big black trucks, harbor boats and aircraft, equipped with radiation sensors and operated by specially trained law enforcement teams, are ready to swing into action in Los Angeles for a catastrophe that nobody even wants to think about: a North Korean nuclear attack.
American cities have long prepared for a terrorist attack, even one involving nuclear weapons or a "dirty bomb," but North Korea's long-range missile and weapons programs have now heightened concerns along the West Coast over increasing vulnerability to a strike.
"We monitor events all over the world and assess whether there is something that could impact us here," said Capt. Leonard McCray, commander of the emergency operations bureau at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. "North Korea is clearly one of them."
As tension rises, the inevitable question is: How well prepared are Los Angeles and other U.S. cities for a nuclear strike? The answer is somewhat unexpected. After two decades of fighting terrorism, law enforcement agencies and the federal government today are better equipped and trained to handle the aftermath of a limited nuclear attack than they ever were during the Cold War. Yet generations of Americans have grown up without learning how to protect themselves in the aftermath of a detonation.
Still, recent events have jolted emergency response agencies and prompted some to fine-tune their preparations.
A string of underground nuclear weapons tests and increasingly sophisticated missile flights have led analysts to conclude that North Korea already has the capability of sending a warhead to Alaska and possibly Hawaii. Within one or two years, based on its stunning rate of progress, North Korea should have Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, Ore., within range, said David Wright, a weapons expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The U.S. has long tried to stop North Korea's ascent as a nuclear power, but the national policy has largely sidestepped the question of how vulnerable U.S. cities are to a surprise attack and how much capability localities should develop to respond to a blast and radioactive fallout.
The U.S. abandoned its massive civil defense program near the end of the Cold War after realizing that any limited nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union would very likely escalate into a full-scale holocaust that would involve hundreds of nuclear weapon detonations. It seemed futile for people to try to survive such a catastrophe in public fallout shelters.
But the North Korean threat is different. The Pyongyang government may have only a dozen nuclear weapons, most of them unsuited for a missile delivery.
"People think everybody would perish, but that is not the case," said Matthew LoPresti, a legislator in Hawaii who has been active in preparing for an attack there. "It would be a mass casualty event, but most people would survive. If you don't take steps, more people will lose their lives."
One ingredient that seems to be missing is a public awareness campaign that tells people what to do, said Dr. Robert Levin, chief health officer of Ventura County.
"We can save hundreds of thousands of lives," said Levin, who has spearheaded one of the nation's few major programs to draw up a detailed response plan for a nuclear attack. "We assume an attack would be on Los Angeles, but it will have impact on Ventura County because we would have millions of people fleeing this way and a radioactive plume that could reach over us."
The county has written a 252-page nuclear response plan that deals with issues such as fallout (radiation levels drop 80% in the first day) to the management of dead bodies. Levin also developed a public awareness campaign, gaining strong support from local political leaders. One public service message shows a mushroom cloud and an actor singing, "Oh no, it's blown, the cloud is in the sky.… You don't need to be scared, you don't need to be loud, because you can survive even a mushroom cloud."
The civil defense work done by Ventura County is exceedingly rare, said Alex Wellerstein, a nuclear weapons historian and assistant professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.
There has been little public discourse since the Cold War about the consequences of nuclear threats, he said. As a result, an entire generation has grown up with little awareness of the danger posed by nuclear weapons.
This month, Wellerstein and other researchers launched Reinventing Civil Defense, a nonprofit project that over the next two years will examine how best to reeducate the American public on the nuclear threat — one that never went away. It is being funded by a $500,000 grant from Carnegie Corp. of New York.
"If we live in a world where a nuclear detonation is possible, and we do, then people should be informed on what that means," he said. "It's something that's been nonexistent in our society since the late 1980s."
The reluctance to prepare reflects what LoPresti calls a "generational PTSD" from the decades of living under the threat of instant thermonuclear war. "It is not something people are comfortable talking about," he said.
LoPresti, chairman of the Asian studies program at Hawaii Pacific University and a philosophy professor, has sought to raise awareness of the dangers and push for some preparations. His own district would be within the fallout zone of an attack on Pearl Harbor, possibly the most important symbol of national security complacency.
Wright, the nuclear weapons expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said North Korea's most recent missile test demonstrated a two-stage rocket that could reach Anchorage and Guam. But he expects that within one to two years North Korea will have enough reach to hit Seattle, 4,900 miles away, and then Los Angeles, 5,800 miles from its launch sites.
"They seem to be doing things in the right way and more professionally, which is worrisome," Wright said. "They seem to have assembled a team of engineers who are solving their problems."
But the task ahead will be increasingly difficult, particularly preventing a warhead from drifting far off target as it reenters the atmosphere. Wright said North Korea would be lucky to land a bomb within 10 miles of a target. Even such a crude device could be effective against a city as spread out as Los Angeles.
An official at the Energy Department, the steward of U.S. nuclear weapons and its nonproliferation programs, acknowledged that it does not monitor what cities and states around the nation are doing. But if an attack does occur, it would be ready to send significant technical assistance from its national laboratories.
The main responsibility would lie with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which declined to provide an official to discuss the issue and did not answer written questions.
If the bright flash of a nuclear bomb ever lights the Los Angeles sky, it will be law enforcement and firefighters who would inevitably be the first responders.
The sheriff's special enforcement bureau, atop a hill overlooking the 710 Freeway, has special trucks with advanced radiological sensors that can scan radiation levels as they drive through neighborhoods, quickly assessing the danger, said Capt. Jack Ewell, commander of the bureau. Terrorism still poses a bigger threat, he said, but "we train and equip ourselves for any threat."
Every station in the county has radiological dosimeters, which tell radiation levels. A team of deputies has trained with federal authorities on nuclear weapons effects. The department has radiological assessment equipment on aircraft and patrol boats in the harbor as well. It would receive federal and local weather assessments that could predict fallout patterns.
"If we are dealing with a situation where there was a nuclear attack from North Korea, we are talking about an air burst that would devastate a large area," McCray, the emergency operations commander, said.
"One advantage in our area is that we are resource rich," he said. "I am convinced we would have a robust response. We don't have the ability to do anything at ground zero, but we do have the ability to help at the perimeter. We have 10 million people in this county and there would be quite a few people to look after."
An exercise is being planned in November that will test the department's ability to respond to a range of emergencies that require mass care and sheltering. "Absolutely the exercise would help us prepare for a North Korean attack, but the same would go for a terrorist attack," McCray said.
Some arms control experts say it would be a mistake to launch a full-scale civil defense effort in response to North Korea. Wright, the expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said such a response would send the wrong message that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has put a dent in U.S. confidence.
Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear weapons analyst with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif., said Kim presents the same threat that existed throughout most of the last century. "He's ruthless, but he's not crazy," Lewis said. "There's reason to be cautious. But it's not a reason to start digging bomb shelters."
But Levin, the Ventura County health director, argues that doing nothing is equally wrong. The key point of the Ventura plan is to ask residents not flee, but to "get inside and stay inside" immediately after a detonation.
The county's plan was developed with technical assistance from Brooke Buddemeier, a nuclear weapons effects expert at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. He has made the case that sheltering indoors for just 24 hours after a detonation provides significantly reduced exposure.
"Talking about nuclear detonation is not one of those topics you can bring up at a cocktail party," Buddemeier said. "But a little knowledge can save a lot of lives."
Vartabedian reported from Los Angeles, and Hennigan reported from Washington.
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