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How Long Islanders have prepped for nuclear disaster

Children from the Village Green School in Huntington

Children from the Village Green School in Huntington line the corridors with their heads down during a civil defense alert April 6, 1958. Photo Credit: Newsday/Walter del Toro

Is it 2018 or the 1960s? It might be hard to tell by the news this week.

On Saturday, Hawaii residents awoke around 8 a.m. to a false alert that a ballistic missile was en route and to shelter in place, leading to widespread panic. Officials in Japan had to do similar damage control on Tuesday after a public broadcaster there accidentally sent a false alert that a North Korean missile had been fired.

In New York, state officials said the panic caused by the mistakes was a good reminder for people to brush up on their preparedness skills — namely, have a family reunification plan and be prepared to shelter in place with supplies available for seven to 10 days, according to Kristin Devoe, public information director for the state’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services.

For some, it’s a throwback to the Cold War, when the United States feared a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union. Schools and office buildings ran drills, the Cuban missile crisis was on the front page and preparations entailed much more: fallout shelters.

Here’s a look back at disaster preparedness from the Newsday archives.

JULY 1959

For Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, it was an ambitious but practical proposal: require every New York State resident to have a home nuclear fallout shelter.

The suggestion was controversial. In the first article in a series on fallout shelters, Newsday described the opinion of “the man on the street” as of two “divergent opinions,” he either thought the governor “had guts or was nuts.”

Responding to the backlash, he said homeowners could build their own for as little as $200 (that’s about $1,700 in 2018 dollars, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics). In the meantime, the federal Office of Civil Defense put out a booklet of instructions, supply lists and blueprints for just how to do it.

The state’s plan didn’t work. By 1961, state officials surveyed Long Island and found there were only 175 home fallout shelters for 500,000 Long Island families.

AUGUST 1959

In a five-part series, Newsday did two experiments: We followed a Westbury couple with a Levitt home as they hired a contractor to build a professional bunker in their yard and challenged Newsday reporter Bob Greene to follow the state’s instructions and build a bunker himself in his basement.

The family, the Perfalls, ran into legal problems — local laws did not allow the construction of accessory buildings like a bunker.

They’d need to appeal to the zoning board before they did anything with their plan, which cost $1,700 at the time. Greene’s attempt was nothing short of a disaster. He attempted to follow the blueprints despite having no masonry experience. Newsday paid the $264.88 needed for supplies and equipment.

At first, he wrote he had the help of the neighborhood children, who formed an assembly line to transport each 32-lb. cinder block from the front yard, where delivery men had dropped it off, to the Greenes’ cellar entrance.

Two days later, Greene gave up. He’d built a single crooked wall, dropped a brick on his foot, accidentally got cement on the family cocker spaniel and learned he’d need to pay a plumber to move the house’s pipes if he were to go any further.

“My hands were skinned and bruised; my foot ached constantly. I had lost valuable and needed cellar space; a large spot on my front lawn was bereft of grass; the backyard looked like a rock quarry,” he wrote. “I’d had it, so I quit.”

SEPTEMBER 1963

As it turned out, the Civil Defense program on Long Island wasn’t as prepared as it seemed. In a four-part series, Newsday pointed to holes in the preparedness plans. One of the biggest: the lack of a reliable warning system.

Before there were TV alerts and cellphone notifications, there were fire sirens. And while Nassau County had the technology to sound all their sirens at once, Suffolk did not, leaving it up to individual fire departments. Only about 25 of the county’s 110 firehouses had someone on duty 24 hours.

And that’s assuming people would hear the sirens and remember what the different sounds meant.

“It’s too hard to tell them apart from the regular fire siren anyway,” an unidentified pharmacist who had previously worked as a Civil Defense officer told Newsday.

Newsday found that public fallout shelters, established after the government could not get people to build them in their homes, were few and far between. Some, like at a department store in West Bay Shore, could not hold as many people as said and lacked basic supplies like water.

At the department store, employees told Newsday they had no idea what to do if a signal were to sound or who to ask for instructions. At other businesses that were designated as fallout shelters, employees didn’t even know they were in one.

“When the bomb comes, I’m just going to fall down and die,” a Western Union manager in New Hyde Park said, shrugging his shoulders.

SEPTEMBER 1966

There were rides and games but that’s not what drew many people to the 1966 Long Island Fair in Westbury. Mr. and Mrs. Paul Zoll, of Seaford, had agreed to participate in a very public experiment and live in a 10-by-10 underground fallout bunker on the fairgrounds for nine days.

“It’ll give me a good chance to catch up on my ironing,” said Mrs. Zoll, whose first name was not reported. Paul Zoll, a construction worker, said he had just felt like having a nice long nap somewhere quiet and volunteered them.

The couple and their 3-year-old daughter, Roberta, were provided with diapers and food like crackers and canned juice. They napped and listened to the radio.

The bliss didn’t last for more than a few days, though. Two days in, they ran out of diapers. Then Mrs. Zoll said she couldn’t take the crackers and candy any longer and sent fair officials out to bring her two hamburgers with onions. Paul Zoll came down with a cold and refused his wife’s pleas that he eat something other than candy, leading to a quarrel on Wednesday morning.

By the end of the first week, the couple said it was a hard pass on living in a bunker again.

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