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Civil defense and the Maine woods

By Janet DomowitzStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 13, 1982


If Soviet cities began emptying during an international crisis, wreckers and signs would mark US highway evacuation routes, and, hours later, the President of the United States would announce a nuclear emergency. Then Sandy Zeamer is supposed to leave her apartment in the Beacon Hill section of Boston and head for Litchfield, Maine.

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Litchfield postmaster and civil defense chief Rudolph Landry says he hopes she brings a tent.

Ms. Zeamer's posting to the Maine woods mirrors federal plans to move 150 million people - two-thirds the US population - from 400 high-risk areas to 2, 000 host areas if a nuclear attack appears imminent. As part of the Reagan administration's planned $4.2 billion, seven-year civil defense buildup, each state is working on plans to evacuate people from cities, military bases, and strategic industries if nuclear war looms.

Massachusetts is ''ahead of most states in planning'' for evacuation if a nuclear attack threatens, says Doug Forbes, chief planner of the Massachusetts Civil Defense Agency. The state is marking individual shelters and expects to be stocking them over the next six or seven years. But the towns of Amherst, Acton, Cambridge, Newton, and Northampton have said they will not cooperate with state planning.

They join Arlington, Va., Boulder, Colo., Greensboro, N.C., Houston, Little Rock, Ark., Marin County, Calif., New York, Philadelphia, Sacramento, Calif., St. Alban's, Vt., and Woodstock, Vt., which all have rejected federal civil defense plans.

Recently, the Boston City Council held a stormy daylong public hearing on evacuation plans for the city.

Litchfield's summer camps along its seven lakes might prove its ''biggest resource'' during an evacuation, Mr. Landry says. But while striving to cooperate with federal plans, he points out that Litchfield itself ''might need to evacuate'' since it is within the evacuation zone of the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), charged with overseeing evacuation in the likelihood of nuclear attack, is undeterred by growing public doubts about the merits such planning. At FEMA's request, the Gallup Organization is conducting a poll of Americans' knowledge and opinion of civil defense.

While planners determine how much earth would need to be shoveled against buildings, or how 1,500 cars per lane per hour could begin their trip using all six lanes of the Massachusetts Turnpike, President Reagan seeks to boost civil defense spending to $252 million next year from $133 million requested this year. The administration also wants to increase the number of federally-paid civil defense planners from the current 200 to 485 next year.

''Unwise and futile, quite impractical'' is how John Steinbruner, director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, describes such a civil defense push. ''As long as you are in the continental US, there is nowhere you can go to be really be safe'' during a nuclear war, says Mr. Steinbruner, an expert on strategic nuclear policy.

US planning assumes that any nuclear attack would be preceded by weeks of rising international tension and that the USSR has extensive civil defense plans.

Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) launched from the Soviet Union could reach US targets in half an hour. But civil defense officials say a period of deteriorating international relations would allow adequate evacuation time. They say all but three US ''risk'' areas - New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco/Oakland - could be evacuated in three days or less, while it would take three to seven days to evacuate all Soviet cities.