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St. Petersburg Times article (cont.)
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A month later, the Suncoast struggles on

DOOMSDAY III ■ It was not until two weeks after the strikes that officials had some idea of the extent of the devastation caused by the nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union. Soviet dead numbered 85 million to 100 million. U.S. casualties were about 80 million. Large scale relief operations had started and workers began going into the devastated areas, but the food and water situation was acute. The President had assumed rule of the country by decree. In Clearwater, Mrs. Wechek and her son died. Wechek and his daughter moved to a refugee camp in Tarpon Springs. The Braggs managed to get a ride to a camp outside Bradenton. ■

Special to The St Petersburg Times
February 27, 1979 (Previous · Next)

A month after the attack, the former inhabitants of St. Petersburg and Tampa were in somewhat better shape than people in many parts of the country that had sustained nuclear blasts. The mild climate meant fewer deaths from exposure. Because they were surrounded by fishing areas and fruit trees, Floridians ate better than many. And, being near the seacoast, shipments of aid were quicker in arriving.

Rebuilding started on the perimeters of the devastation zones on those structures that had the least damage. The low, cinder-block buildings common to the area fared better than taller structures.

Even where not destroyed, the tall buildings, such as the high-rise condominiums, were presumed structurally unsound because of the stress on their steel or reinforced concrete skeletons. Although portions still stood, the Bayfront Tower and Bayfront Concourse (formerly the St. Petersburg Hilton) were condemned. Buildings like these were pulled down and salvageable materials taken from the rubble for new construction when the work crews could get to it.

AS THE FALLOUT lessened, teams pushed into the total devastation areas and completed the burial process. Proportionally more residents of St. Petersburg died in the attacks due to their age; blast and radiation effects dealt harshly with the elderly.

St. Petersburg Times, Feb. 27, 1979 (page 1). Click to enlarge.

To the rebuilding teams, one of the most astonishing sights was the evidence left by the intense fires. Heavy steel and thick glass were melted into nightmare shapes. City blocks had been reduced to smoldering heaps of ashes by fires that could not be controlled before they spread into stormy conflagrations, feeding on the trash and treasures of the city.

The wood frame houses in the older section of the city were destroyed, while homes far distant from any actual flame were scorched, seared and blistered by the heat. Some reached the kindling point and burned down, while adjacent houses escaped serious damage.

After a month, however, a few families were able to reoccupy homes in the more distant residential and suburban areas, bringing with them relatives or new acquaintances and foregoing, for the most part, the luxuries of electricity, gas or sanitation services, which were only slowly and selectively being restored. They had still to bicycle or walk some distance to the central distribution centers and life had no semblance of the pre-attack period.

But for a few it seemed like a step toward normality. At least some of the surroundings remained familiar. For the rest of St. Petersburg and Tampa, it would be many months before survivors could get out of the refugee camps.

Mrs. Bragg was buried in a simple grave—not a mass burial trench, Mr. Bragg was insistent about that—one month after the nuclear attack in the camp near Bradenton. Bragg had watched helplessly as his wife grew weaker and weaker. She had difficulty in catching her breath, she lost what little appetite she had. Without her medication, her heart gave out quietly while she was asleep.

St. Petersburg Times, Feb. 27, 1979 (page 7A). Click to enlarge.

BRAGG WENT into a decline soon after the simple funeral, attended by some of the other older refugees in the camp. As he was no use to the rebuilding effort, he was sent away to a camp for the senile and the bedridden. He seldom spoke after that, although he lived on for some years.

The Wechek girl ran away from the refugee camp north of Tarpon Springs to find her father. At 10, she was an independent, intelligent child, or had been before the attacks. Pulling herself out of her depression with a kind of manic determination, she slipped away from the camp where she had been sent and headed toward home. She had a fairly accurate picture of the direction she needed to go, although she traveled at night.

Her father, in the meantime, had walked away from his job in reconstruction near the center of the devastation in Pinellas. Though an electronics technician before the attack, he was now reduced to sorting bricks. He walked in the direction of the children's camp.

The girl fell in with a band of teenagers and pre-teenagers like herself. They lived off the land, foraging for food or stealing it. They slept in abandoned shacks or in the fields, sometimes storming an out-of-the-way home and looting it or occupying it for a time. The Wechek girl was readily accepted in the gang; they were as alone as she and for months this was her family.

SEVERAL months passed before she and her father found each other, quite by accident, because they were both now considered fugitives of a kind and could not go to the official locating services.

Wechek and his daughter fled into the interior of the Florida peninsula, near Lakeland in Polk County, where he found work as a laborer and fruit picker. Although the radiation-damaged fruit trees bore somewhat smaller yields for several years, they did produce fruit. The truck farms also yielded smaller crops; phosphate was available but petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides were not. Still, there was work in the fields.

The two surviving Wecheks lived in a small but he made from "found" lumber and other materials. He talked of sending his daughter back to school one day, after they had stayed there long enough to qualify for a new residence card and ration book. But, for the time being, they kept to themselves, trusting no one in authority, eking out an existence day by day.

Return to 'normalcy'

Some called the period beginning a month after the attack "the return to normalcy." But it was normal only in comparison to the holocaust.

The government was able to restore a semblance of order in all save a few areas. A new kind of daily routine was established. Survivors now knew where to find food and basic shelter. Elementary schools had been set up in the camps for women and children. Work camps for able adults dispatched reconstruction teams into the zones of devastation. It was altogether a different life from the pre-attack period.

Both of the superpowers continued to observe a shaky truce. Neither was prepared to proclaim victory.

Slowly, the government began to assert its tenuous control. Under the broad emergency powers assumed by the President, it adopted a recovery plan, giving first priority to basic relief efforts—which would be necessary for some time to come—but also to reconstruction.

Long-term survival of the country would depend on rebuilding the damaged economic system as rapidly as possible. But how to allocate the remaining resources of labor and material goods was hotly debated within the government and between various localities. Particularly unpopular was the governmental decision to assign significant amounts of food, medical supplies and manufactured goods, as well as manpower, to the military. In the event of new hostilities or large civilian disturbances, the military was to be in a state of readiness to act.

NOT ALL OF those who were to die from the effects of the nuclear attack had yet succumbed. Some would linger on for weeks or months or years. Some would die of illnesses that would have been minor before the attack, but now, aggravated by the lack of medicine and the shock of the experience, were fatal.

For the living, another serious problem became apparent. Even the unbombed regions learned how dependent they were on the damaged urban centers for many of the necessities of life. The cities were the heart of the system. And, with so many of the survivors injured, sick or traumatized, supporting the population was a far more complex and burdensome task than in normal times. The lack of healthy manpower made it difficult to offset the losses in machinery and equipment.

Congress had been decimated by the attack, but the survivors reconvened outside of Washington to debate the reconstruction program. Since nearly all authority was assigned to the President, the congressional role was mainly advisory. Hotly debated in Congress and throughout the country was whether or not the refugees should be spread throughout the undamaged regions and integrated with the local populace or kept in large concentrations near the ruined cities, where the distribution of relief supplies would be more efficient and the refugees could act as labor battalions to rebuild the cities.

LOCAL government in and around the zones of devastation was in the hands of federally-appointed Relief and Reconstruction Planning Councils (RRPCs), which were set up in part to fill the vacuum of political authority and to resolve the disputes among those governmental units that did survive. The councils controlled nearly every facet of everyday life—allocating private housing, rationing and distributing food and clothing, deciding reconstruction priorities and controlling the movements of citizens, all of whom were required to carry ration and identity cards.

The RRPCs were very unpopular.

The government decided to rebuild the cities where they had stood, partly because they were well-located to begin with and partly because there was much in the rubble that was salvageable for reconstruction. Some heavily targeted areas in the northeast corridor and in Southern California were simply written off.

Many of the refugees were unhappy about the decision; they wanted to retreat as far away as possible from the site of the recent trauma. They also chafed under the government-imposed communalism of the camps and the suspension of personal liberties and property rights. Many continued to push out into the less densely populated areas, though resources in these areas were often inadequate to support them in addition to the normal population. Furthermore, the arrival of masses of refugees frightened and angered the rural residents, who feared the loss of their food and homes.

AROUND THE CITIES, able-bodied men and women continued to be assigned to work teams but these were not nearly as efficient as the planners had hoped. With the lack of proper tools and training for the workers, their poor diet, rest and medical care (simple headaches and stomach pains bred anxiety as possible symptoms of radiation sickness), with the anger and skepticism toward a government that had allowed the attacks to take place, and with the psychological shock that still paralyzed many survivors, the work went very slowly.

Education was virtually abandoned above the primary level. Schools were used as refugee centers, hospitals and day care centers. In place of secondary and higher education, the government sponsored crash courses in masonry, carpentry, plumbing and the like, as well as in basic manufacturing and agricultural techniques.

Surviving businessmen were especially critical of the government. All their assets were virtually confiscated for the reconstruction and recovery effort, and there was little indication when the owners would get them back or be repaid.

Small businessmen and retailers were ruined by the thousands, even in the undamaged areas, because their businesses depended on products from the ravaged cities. All business decisions were made by the government, "for the common good," officials said.

THE AMERICAN, as well as the Soviet, economy slowly reverted to a kind of subsistence level. Refugees lived day to day, some of them exhibiting great selflessness and making personal sacrifices, others responding with anger, greed or withdrawal. The simple demands of survival, for a population grown used to a dependent existence, were such that it was often hard to generate any community spirit, even though the majority acquiesced in the demands of government programs and controls. Still, they turned inward to concentrate, not on the rebuilding of the greater society, but on personal and family survival.

Though they had survived the holocaust, life as they had known it had perished.

The course of life

While government studies indicated that life would survive a nuclear attack, even of large proportions, it was far from clear what form it would take, what social and political systems would prevail in the post-attack era.

Much depended on factors that could only be guessed at: the type and number of targets, the continuation of hostilities after an attack, the amount of warning, the availability of foreign credit and material assistance, the amount and pattern of radioactive fallout, the size and condition of the labor force, the public's reaction to the attack and post-attack measures, and so on.

Most studies predicted that many social, political, judicial and economic institutions would collapse, fragment, or suffer other severe strains and that the calamity would require the imposition of martial law, suspension of normal rights and procedures, tight control of all phases of economic life and other drastic governmental measures and intervention.

Civil defense planners, for example, wrote in a 1976 report, Survival of the Relocated Population of the U.S. After a Nuclear Attack, that: "... a large-scale shipping program of grain may be necessary in the first few weeks after a nuclear attack, in order to avoid severe food shortages for 60-80 million people. This operation will require coordinated multistate federal planning and supervision ... 

"THE MAJOR supply of grain in the postattack situation will be in the hands of farmers and owners of rural elevators. Surrender of grain by these people for federal promissory notes will require their confidence and trust in the federal government. It is unlikely that sufficient federal law enforcement or military personnel will be available to confiscate food in face of widespread opposition by local authorities."

A panel of military officers, scientists and civil defense planners assembled for the Army in 1971 predicted that after a nuclear attack:

"The federal government would make serious mistakes and stiffer a loss of power and prestige, but not a loss of faith so serious as to favor the possibility of revolt Financial institutions would be modified greatly, and barter would be a widespread reaction to inflation . . . Legal, Judicial and enforcement systems would similarly undergo great strains, being overwhelmed entirely in some areas, but again, due process, though delayed, would not be lost in principle ... 

"MOST PANELISTS did predict an increase in conflict between sections of the country, between advocates of varying war policies, and between urban and rural populations; and also that such conflict would pose serious problems . . . and many predicted racial or class conflict as well. Such conflict, most panelists noted, as well as that between families and other small groups, would necessitate the imposition of martial law or other authoritarian systems in many localities, and the widespread use of troops to maintain order ..."

Experts did not know whether these measures would be temporary or would permanently alter the American social and political scene.

The outcome, they said, depended on how rapidly the economy was restored, since many of these stringent. measures related to the division and use of scarce resources. Even if it was possible to rebuild a shattered economy in five years (Germany and Japan took at least a decade after World War II with considerable external aid), it was not certain at the time that the government considered it wise to reinstitute all of the political, economic and social freedoms of the pre-attack period, particularly if there was strong civil discontent or if the external world remains unsettled.

These experts predicted that a thermonuclear attack that damaged American productive capacity very severely would not only make recovery very problematic, it would pull the plug on the international economic system. The United States played a pivotal role in the world economic order. The nation's devastation would make raising the long-term foreign loans of capital needed to start and sustain recovery difficult or impossible. The sources of America's capital would lie in ashes, while foreign countries, already dependent on American capital or American markets, would have little surplus to lend the United States.

WHETHER, under these circumstances of heavy industrial damage, economic disarray and capital short ages, a successful recovery effort could be mounted was not certain before the attack. This crucial battle for economic survival involved a predicament common to developing countries, marginal farmers, and those lost in the wilderness. The need to accumulate surpluses in order to improve one's condition over the long haul conflicted sharply with the urgent need to consume resources in order to survive in the immediate future.

Sidney Winter, an analyst for the government think tank known as the RAND Corporation, summed up this dilemma as follows: "… the process of achieving (post-attack economic) viability can be viewed as a race between the reconstruction of the capital stock (and thus recovery of output) and the depletion of the inventories from which essential needs are being met in the meantime."

Other experts said that in some ways the economy would have to return to labor-intensive methods in order to offset losses in labor-saving equipment and machinery. Yet the labor force would be depleted and weakened.

The 1971 panel of experts, mentioned earlier, pointed out: "Among the most significant results are quantitative estimates of the impact of ... social and psychological factors on the availability and efficiency of the surviving labor force ... the results indicate, for example, that one month after the attack, less than half of the potential labor force could be expected to work without immediately beneficial compensation and that, of these, one in five would be able to function only at a level greatly degraded from his normal abilities."

NEXT: The final installment >>

Posted: March 4, 2019