Portland, Maine — Residents of Portland gathered recently in the Deering High School auditorium , not to consider the school board budget, but to debate whether they should be preparing for a nuclear attack. In this and other hearings across the state, citizens are questioning civil-defense plans, often testifying with passion, but sprinkling in just a hint of Down East humor.
A commission set up by the Maine Legislature is sounding out residents on whether they support the civil-defense plans suggested by the federal government. Public response from the first two hearings has been resoundingly negative.
Testifier after testifier criticized the government's civil-defense plans, calling them dangerous and deceptive. One man went so far as to say such plans simply ''camouflage a war policy.''
The Maine hearings are being held against a backdrop of national controversy over civil defense. Nuclear freeze activists, many scientists, and groups such as Physicians for Social Responsibility claim civil-defense plans lull people into a false sense of security. These activists say that because a nuclear war is neither ''winnable nor survivable,'' making any plans for the possiblity of war is to move closer to the brink of disaster.
State Rep. Thomas Andrews (D) says civil defense represents ''the one aspect of the (federal government's) nuclear-arms policy that directly affects Maine.''
Representative Andrews, chairman of the Citizens' Civil Emergency Commission, says the government has a new approach to civil-defense planning. In the past, he says, it included bomb shelters and plans to evacuate people to safer areas. But now, rather than preparing specifically for nuclear emergencies, Andrews says, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is taking a more general approach to dealing with all disasters - in effect putting nuclear hazards in the same category with hurricanes, tornados, and earthquakes.
Dr. James Maier, a member of the commission and of Physicians for Social Responsibilty, says FEMA's hazard management system is simply ''an attempt to camouflage an extremely unpopular policy.'' He says that 110 cities and three states - Maryland, California, and New Mexico - have refused to participate in such plans.
James Holten, director of public relations for FEMA, defends the new policy, noting that FEMA has a small staff and must prepare for many potential disasters. There are elements common to these disasters, he says, such as communication and transportation needs, food and water delivery, and planning for recovery after the disaster. Holten also says the Civil Defense Act requires FEMA to plan for nuclear emergencies. If people don't like it, he says, they ''should go to Congress to have the law repealed.''
Maine receives $131,000 in federal funds each year to develop plans for relocating people from seven areas considered likely targets in a nuclear attack. Given enough warning, residents of Portland, Bath, Presque Isle, and other cities, as well as some Massachusetts residents would be relocated to less dangerous areas in Maine.
The hearing in Portland last week drew about 200 residents of all ages. Randy Schwartz of the state Bureau of Health said, ''Believing that nuclear war is survivable increases the risk.'' Money spent on civil defense should instead ''be allocated to preventing this disaster.''
Nancy Perry of Cumberland said the state could ''just as well invest in covered wagons and put them in a circle in case of nuclear war. This is consistent with the thinking that nuclear war is survivable.''
During the evening only one person spoke even tacitly in favor of civil-defense plans. Andrews said he was surprised that civil-defense proponents did not show up.