Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and Ranking Member Susan Collins, R-Me., heard testimony Thursday underscoring the fact that despite the horrific effects of a terrorist nuclear attack on the homeland, lives would be saved if detailed federal, state, local, and individual plans are put into place ahead of time. All four hearing witnesses highlighted the critical importance of public communications in a nuclear disaster.
At a hearing entitled “Nuclear Terrorism: Providing Medical Care and Meeting Basic Needs in the Aftermath,” the Senators heard dire descriptions of the enormous numbers of casualties and wounded, the lack of medical surge capacity, the problems of housing and feeding hundreds of thousands of displaced people, and the critical nature of fast, clear, and accurate communications with survivors.
“The sad truth is that many of our most valuable resources across the nation will go unused in a nuclear catastrophe because of a lack of prior planning and coordination,” said Lieberman. “We must decide before an attack how we can bring the entire nation’s resources to bear as quickly as possible, including surge medical providers, mobile care facilities, and pharmaceutical supplies…But perhaps the single most effective way to save lives will be preventing casualties in the first place through effective communications. We need to have systems in place to advise people in and around the area of the radioactive plume whether they should stay put or evacuate.”
Collins said: “Our top priority must be to improve the diplomatic, intelligence, and law enforcement efforts that limit nuclear proliferation, safeguard weapons-grade nuclear material, and thwart terrorists’ plots. If detection and interception fail, however, we must be ready for the aftermath. Effective planning and training for a large-scale and well-coordinated mass-care response are vital. This effort requires coordination among DHS, HHS, DOD, state and local emergency managers, first responders, and key players in the private sector.”
Adding to the problem: A top official of the American Red Cross said budget restrictions will keep the Red Cross from placing representatives in FEMA Regional Offices and that the agency would need federal funds in order to fulfill its responsibilities under the National Response Framework to help shelter and feed disaster victims.
Witnesses recommended that medical supplies be prepositioned; shelters be stockpiled with food; local, state, and federal governments plan and exercise response plans; that clear messages be developed to inform the public, after a nuclear blast, about whether to evacuate or shelter in place; and that plans be developed to decontaminate potentially hundreds of thousands of evacuees.
Dr. Irwin Redlener, Director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University said that while all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union would have devastated the nation, “nuclear terrorism with a single, relatively low-yield smuggled or crudely constructed bomb – while fatal for many to be sure – would be survivable by many more with appropriate information, planning and response.”
The hearing was the fourth in a series exploring the nation’s capacity to respond to a terrorist detonation of a nuclear weapon on an American city. Witnesses, in addition to Dr. Redlener, included: Dr. Ira Helfand, Board Member and Past President of Physicians for Social Responsibility; Joseph C. Becker, Senior Vice President of Disaster Services for the American Red Cross; and John Ullyot, Senior Vice President, Media Relations and Issues Management at Hill and Knowlton, Inc.