Nerves over North Korea and Trump tweets and comments bring NYC’s fallout shelters back into the spotlight

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NEW YORK — Nuclear fallout shelters had been thought of as relics of the long-ago ended Cold War.

However, with renewed nuclear saber-rattling between North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un and President Donald Trump, the shelters have re-emerged in news headlines.

New York City is actually home to thousands of de-commissioned shelters, the only sign of their former purpose being the distinctive, but faded yellow and black signs on their exterior. Recent international developments seem to make the signs more eye-catching.

First, some background. In the 1950s and 1960s, federal civil defense authorities emphasized the need for U.S. families to protect themselves from a potential nuclear strike by the then-Soviet Union -- what is the Russian Federation today.

New York City and other major metropolitan areas were initially not considered to be salvageable from nuclear attack by federal authorities, and little was done at first to ensure New Yorkers had what was considered adequate shelter, according to an account in the New York Times.

That changed under Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. Shortly after his inauguration in 1959, he ordered surveys be done of buildings citywide to assess their ability to withstand nuclear fallout.

More than 19,000 buildings passed muster with state authorities -- enough to shelter, the thought was at the time, more than 11 million residents. The buildings that were approved for sheltering had fallout shelter signs affixed to them, both on their facades and inside, at the shelter point.

Fast forward to now, when the relationship between the U.S. president and Russia has changed so much that President Trump has thanked Russian president Vladimir Putin for expelling U.S. diplomats this week

The situation with North Korea, however, is a different thing entirely. Pres. Trump is engaged in a war of words with North Korean dictator Kim Jung Un that could potentially become a war of weapons -- nuclear ones -- following North Korea's development of a nuclear warhead that its leader wants to use.

It's why the fallout shelter signs are getting a second look now. One is to the right of the door of P.S. 2 in Chinatown, showing its past as a designated nuclear safe haven.

"I like it," said Derek Dipaola, a custodial worker at the school. "You just don't know," he said about the geopolitical situation. His was definitely an attitude of better safe than sorry.

It was nonetheless not as intense as that of the nation in the 1950s and 1960s, when the threat of global thermonuclear war was much more acute. A remnant of that intensity can be seen on one street in Hamilton Heights, where three buildings still display their fallout shelter signs.

In full disclosure, this reporter lives in one of those buildings. Its shelter area is underground, and fortified with thick stone walls. Those walls are within a structure that is contiguous with other stone-walled buildings at the basement level. Whether or not it could withstand a thermonuclear blast is debatable. However, somebody thought, 50 years ago, that it could.

Thousands of the signs remain all over the five boroughs, even though the shelters were decommissioned in the latter 1960s. Most were also cleared of the canned food and sealed water and medications with which they were stocked.

One exception to that, for decades, was the fallout shelter discovered in the Manhattan-side foundation of the Brooklyn Bridge. It was unearthed 11 years ago by a renovation crew.

The shelter has been cleared out. At least for now.