Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Remain Calm


First-responders rush to the scene to treat the wounded, evacuate everyone else, and secure the area. It takes somewhere between ten and fifteen minutes for the first-responders to recognize there is radioactive contamination at the site. Using cesium 137 stolen from a medical facility and a detonator cord taken from a mining operation, terrorists had constructed a dirty bomb.

A couple of hundred people are killed in the initial blast. Several hundred more are injured, and there are perhaps as many as 20,000 contaminations. Radioactive material is spread for 36 blocks, all the way up through Chinatown, Little Italy, Soho, and the Village. City Hall, the courthouses, and the federal buildings are all affected by the fallout. There is a panicked rush to flee Manhattan. Roads, bridges, and tunnels are all hopelessly clogged with traffic, and train service is suspended.

Cesium 137, a fine, light powder, binds to concrete and stone, making cleanup a nightmare. Several buildings near the blast will have to be demolished and rebuilt owing to contamination. The financial markets are closed for days, and lower Manhattan is completely deserted for months. Checkpoints are set up to control traffic in and out of Manhattan and to check for possible contamination.

A dirty bomb is one thing, but an actual nuclear event, as it’s often innocuously referred to (it makes it sound like something you don’t want to miss, like the “movie or concert event of the season”), is the mother of all disaster scenarios. And it is the Rubik’s Cube of preparedness planning. How do you prepare for something so overwhelming?

To the extent that the city has plans for this kind of catastrophe, it will not give anything away because of security concerns. “No local jurisdiction has the capability to deal with this on its own,” says Jarrod Bernstein, an OEM spokesman.

The hospitals have installed decon showers and negative-pressure isolation rooms. They have purchased hazmat gear and once-exotic items like Geiger counters, chemical-weapons detectors, and nerve-gas and chemical-weapons antidote kits.

In some cases, they have even installed security gates that can shut down general hospital access as well as access to ambulance bays and emergency rooms. In a nuclear, chemical, or biological incident, or during a pandemic, hospitals must make sure their facilities are not compromised. This means controlling who gets in and out. Quarantine may also be necessary. Commissioner Frieden says they’re ready. Last year, during the sars scare, there were several patients who were kept in the hospital against their will as a public-safety measure.

The Health Department, working with hospitals and the OEM, has developed what is called a syndromic surveillance system. Every day, the department collects data from emergency rooms, ambulance services, 911 calls, and pharmacies, in order to watch for clusters of unusual symptoms: unexplained fevers, outbreaks of diarrhea, multiple flulike cases.

Still, there are holes. Four years after 9/11, the Police and Fire Departments still have difficulty communicating with one another by radio. A satellite scheduled to go up in January is supposed to alleviate this problem once and for all. (It was a serious issue in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina.)

In the end, some of the most important things to manage are expectations. “There is this notion,” Brodsky says, “that we can take care of everybody. Well, the truth is we can’t take care of everybody.”

See also
When Bad Things Happen
Nine things to worry about - and what you can do.
Bird Watching
How New Yorkers are coping with the Avian flu scare.
Geography of Disaster
The City's fault lines, flood zones, escape routes, and trauma centers.


Current Issue
Subscribe to New York

Give a Gift