At first, it seemed like a miracle. No fireball had seared the city, no blast wave had crumbled buildings and buried the inhabitants, no dark mushroom cloud had spread over the sky. Much of the country had been devastated by massive nuclear attack, but the small, gracious city of Charlottesville, Va., had escaped unharmed.
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The nuclear attack on the Nation did not come as a complete surprise. For some weeks, there had been a mounting anxiety as the media reported deteriorating relations between the superpowers. The threat of possible nuclear war hung heavy in the world’s consciousness. As evidence reached the U.S. President’s desk that a sizable number of Americans were deserting the major cities for what they perceived to be safety in the rural areas, he considered ordering a general evacuation. But, with the concurrence of his advisors, he decided that an evacuation call from the Federal Government would be premature, and possibly provocative. There was no hard evidence that the Soviets were evacuating and there was a good chance that the crisis would pass.
Spontaneous evacuation, without official sanction or direction, grew and spread. A week before the attack, Charlottesville had no free hotel or motel rooms. A few evacuees found lodgings with private families, at great expense, but most were forced to camp by their cars in their traiIers next to the fast-food chains on Route 29. The governing bodies of Charlottesville and surrounding Albemarle County were rumored to be concerned about the drain on the area resources, without really having any way of turning back newcomers. “If this keeps up,” remarked a member of the Albemarle Board of Supervisors, “we’re going to be overrun without any war.”
A few of the students at the University of Virginia left Charlottesville to join their families. But the majority of the students stayed, believing that they could go home easily if it were necessary.
Refugees came from Washington, 130 miles to the north, and they came from Richmond, 70 miles to the east. A few of the hardier types continued on into the mountains and caverns near Skyline Drive; the majority sought the reassurances of civilization that the small city could provide.
The population of Charlottesville normally stood a little above 40,000, while Albemarle County which surrounds the city like a donut boasted an additional 40,000 to 50,000. With the arrival of the city evacuees, the combined population was well over 120,000.
In the week before the nuclear attack, much of the population familiarized itself with the location of fallout shelters. Little hoarding took place as retailers limited sales of food and other necessities. Transistor radios accompanied both adults and children when they were away from home. However, most of the residents of CharlottesviIIe continued to live as they always had, although they were particularly alert for sirens or bulletin broadcasts on the radio. Many children stayed out of school.
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At the sound of the sirens and the emergency radio alerts, most of Charlottesville and Albemarle County hurried to shelter. Fortunately, Charlottesville had a surplus of shelter space for its own population, though the refugees easily took up the slack. Many headed for the University grounds and the basements of the old neoclassical buildings designed by Thomas Jefferson; others headed downtown for the office building parking garages. Carrying a few personal effects, blankets, cans and bottles of food, and transistor radios, they converged in a quiet if unordered mass, For most people, the obvious emotional crises—grief at leaving behind a pet, anxiety at being unable to locate a family member or relative—were suppressed by the overwhelming fear of the impending attack.
Some residents chose not to join the group shelters. Many suburbanites had ample, sturdy basements and food stocks. They preferred not to crowd themselves. In the event, those who had taken the precaution of piling dirt against the windows and doors of their basements found that they provided adequate shelter. Among the rural poor, there was a reluctance to desert the small farms that represented the sum of their Iife’s work. They wondered whether, if they left, they would return to find their means of livelihood gone. Further, many lived far from an adequate public shelter. So they stayed.
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Most did not see the attacks on Richmond and on Washington as they huddled in their shelters. But the sky to the east and north of Charlottesville glowed brilliant in the noonday sun. At first no one knew how extensive the damage was.
Communication nationwide was interrupted as the Earth’s atmosphere shivered with the assault of the explosions. Each town, city, village, or farm was an island, forced to suffer its selected fate of death or salvation alone. (Some time later it was learned that more than 4,000 megatons (Mt) had destroyed military and industrial targets, killing close to 100 million people in the United States. The U.S. counterattack on the Soviet Union had had a similar, devastating effect. Destruction ranged from the large industrial centers on the coasts and Great Lakes to small farming communities that had the misfortune to be close to the great missile silos and military bases. )
Areas of the country such as the northeast corridor were reduced to a swath of burning rubble from north of Boston to south of Norfolk. Still, there were some sections of the Nation that were spared the direct effects of blast and fire. Inland in Virginia, only the town of Radford, west of Roanoke, received a direct hit. The farming and orchard land of the rural counties were not targets.
Charlottesville, the small but elegant center of learning, culture, and trade in central Virginia, was not hit either. This monument to the mind and manner of Jefferson retained its status as a kind of genteel sanctuary, momentarily immune to the disaster that had leveled the cities of the Nation.
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An hour after nothing fell on Charlottesville, rescue squads and police were dispatched to scour the countryside for stragglers to get them to shelters. Because, even if the population was safe from the direct effects of the nuclear warheads, another danger was imminent. Fallout, the deadly cloud of radioactive particles sucked up by the nuclear fireballs, could easily blanket the town of Charlottesville in a matter of hours. And no one could predict how much, and where it would go. Fallout could poison many of those idyllic rural towns and villages that seemed light-years away from the problems of international power and politics. While a few places, such as Roseberg, Ore., would receive no fallout at all, the rest of the Nation would have to constantly monitor to know the level of radiation and where it was located. Fortunately for Charlottesville, the University and the hospitals had sophisticated radiological monitoring equipment, and the training to use it. Many other towns were not so lucky.
Two and one-half hours after the warnings had sounded, the nuclear engineering staff from the University picked up the first fallout. Starting at a moderate level of about 40 rems an hour—a cumulative dose of 450 rems received in a 1-week period would be fatal to one-half of those exposed—the intensity rose to 50 rems before starting the decline to a level of about four-tenths of a rem an hour after 2 weeks. (The total dose in the first 4 days was 2,000 rems, which killed those who refused to believe shelter was necessary, and increased the risk of eventually dying of cancer for those who were properly sheltered.) For the immediate period, it was essential to stay as protected as possible.
For several days, Charlottesville remained immobile, suspended in time. It was unclear just what had happened or would happen. The President had been able to deliver a message of encouragement, which was carried by those emergency radio stations that could broadcast. As the atmosphere had cleared, radio station WCHV was able to transmit sporadically on its backup transmitter and emergency generator in the basement. However, the message from the President posed more questions than it answered—the damage assessment was incomplete. Nevertheless, he said that there was a tentative cease-fire.
In the first days of sheltering, only those with some particular expertise had much to do. Nuclear engineers and technicians from the University were able to monitor radiation in the shelters they occupied, and CB radios broadcast results to other shelters. The doctors were busy attempting to treat physical and psychological ailments—the symptoms of radiation sickness, flu, and acute anxiety being unnervingly similar—while the police and government officials attempted to keep order. The rest waited.
For the time being, the food stocks brought to the shelter were adequate if not appetizing. The only problem was the water supply which, though it kept running because of its gravity system, was contaminated with Iodine 131. Potassium iodide pills, which were available in some shelters, provided protection; elsewhere people drank bottled water, or as little water as possible.
Not all of the shelters had enough food and other necessities. Most shelters had no toilets. The use of trash cans for human waste was an imperfect system, and several days into the shelter period, the atmosphere was often oppressive. As many suffered from diarrhea—the result either of anxiety, flu, or radiation sickness—the lack of toilet facilities was especially difficult. Shelter life was bearable in the beginning. Communications by CB radio allowed some shelters to communicate with one another, to locate missing family members and friends. A genuine altruism or community spirit of cooperation was present in almost all the shelters—though some of them were fairly primitive. Even those refugees who were crowded into halls and basements with the local residents were welcomed. Parents watched out for one another’s children or shared scarce baby food. Most people willingly accepted direction from whomever took charge. Among the majority of the shelter residents, the out-of-town refugees being an exception, there was a sense of relief, a sense that they had been among the lucky ones of this world. They had survived.
Within a few days, the emergency radio was able to broadcast quite regularly. (As the ionosphere does not clear all at once, occasional interruptions were expected.) The station had had no protection from the electromagnetic pulse that can travel down the antenna and shatter the inner workings of electronic equipment during a nuclear explosion. However, by detaching the back-up transmitter at the sound of the warning, the station engineer had protected equipment. Intermittent communications from Emergency Operations Centers got through to Charlottesville officials, though the main communications center at Olney, Md., was silent. Telephone switching facilities were almost entirely out, although the small, independent phone company could expect to be operational fairly quickly. The complex, coast-to-coast trunk lines of Ma Bell might take a year or more to reconnect.
Lifeline of the sheltered community was the CB radio. Rural Virginians had been CB fans long before it became a national craze, and they put their equipment to imaginative use. Prodded by anxious refugees, as well as by local residents who had relatives and friends in other parts of the world, CBers tried to set up a relay system on the lines of an electronic pony express. Though less than perfect, the CB relay was able to bring limited news from outside, most of that news being acutely distressing. From the limited reports, it was clear that there was little left in the coastal cities; those who had abandoned family or friends to come to Charlottesville understood that probably they would never see them again.
The first surge of grief swept over the refugees and those Charlottesville residents who were affected. In time, the sorrow of loss would affect almost everyone. Although they had survived themselves, still they had lost.
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