Nuclear weapons are unlikely to hit US cities, but experts say it’s too early to rule out the possibility.

The US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has plans to deal with 15 different types of disasters, including a nuclear attack in a large metropolitan area. The agency’s strategy is to send out first responders, provide evacuees immediate shelter, and decontaminate radiation-exposed victims.

During an emergency, FEMA advises all citizens to: Get inside, stay inside, and stay tuned.

However, according to Irwin Redlener (public-health expert at Columbia University specializing in disaster preparedness), these federal guidelines aren’t sufficient to prepare a city for a nuclear strike.

Six major cities in danger 

“There isn’t a single jurisdiction in America that has anything approaching an adequate plan to deal with a nuclear detonation,” Redlener said.

This includes the six major cities—New York, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, DC—that he believes are the most likely targets of a nuclear strike.

In addition to being some of the biggest and densest in the nation, these cities include key infrastructure essential to US security, including power plants, financial centers, administrative buildings, and wireless transmission networks.

In the event of a nuclear attack, residents in several cities throughout the country don’t know what to do. Most cities have emergency-management websites instructing residents on what to do in a crisis, but few (excluding Los Angeles and New York) specifically mention a nuclear attack. This makes it difficult for locals to learn how to protect themselves if an explosive falls on their hometown.

“It would not be the end of life as we know it. It would just be a horrific, catastrophic disaster with many, many unknown and cascading consequences,” Redlener commented on such a situation.

Cities may have difficulty providing emergency assistance.

According to Redlener, the most important scenario to prepare for is not an all-out nuclear war but a single nuclear explosion, such as one from North Korea. He said that North Korean missiles are currently capable of reaching Alaska or Hawaii but could soon reach West Coast cities.

Nuclear terrorism is another possible source of an attack on a major US city. These six cities are listed as “Tier 1” by the Department of Homeland Security, meaning an attack in any of them would result in more loss of life than in other areas.

Major cities don’t have any dedicated fallout shelters.

In 1961, the Cold War peaked, and fears of nuclear attack were at an all-time high. That’s when the US government launched the Community Fallout Shelter Program, which dedicated safe places for citizens to take refuge after a nuclear attack.

When financing for the program ran out in the 1970s, New York City had set up 18,000 fallout shelters to provide refuge for up to 11 million citizens.

In 2017, New York City officials removed the yellow signs that once identified these shelters as they have shut down. 

Redlener said the shelters no longer exist because large cities like New York and San Francisco need more affordable housing to meet the needs of their growing populations.