Local News

Fallout Shelters Are Not What They Used to Be

Posted November 5, 1997 12:00 a.m. EST

— The Cold War has been over for years. We no longer feel the imminent threat of nuclear war, but it wasn't too long ago when we couldn't run. Back then we only hoped we could hide.

Shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis,President Kennedywarned we should start digging fallout shelters and a craze set in. Those shelters are still around, but fortunately they are no longer being used for their intended purpose.

As Americans, we were confident in our military. But we were also very concerned. Russian nuclear missiles were pointed right at eastern North Carolina and we knew it wouldn't take long to strike from Cuba.

Those of us who lived through the Cold War remember it as a frightening time. We knew the Russians were serious. And we were also concerned. Where on earth will we go in case there's a nuclear attack?

The government had an answer. Take over several state and federal office buildings and turning them into fallout shelters. And 30 years ago you didn't have to look far to find them.

Fallout shelter signs hung on almost every old building along the Raleigh's Fayetteville Street Mall. Even the basement of the state Capitol Building was stocked with food and medical supplies. The only place you'll find these yellow and black Triangles now is on the State Supreme Court building.

In the early 1960s many families had a 125-page civil defense manual that taught us about everything from gamma rays to gieger counters. But some families were even more prepared. Some went underground, such as a family who built an elaborate escape from radiation in a old Arkansas cave.

Others were equally creative but with fewer frills. John Hackney was one of the first to build a personal fallout shelter in Wilson County. He was one of 200,000 across the country who wanted to outlive Armageddon. "The inside wall is block and this is brick facing. And in here is sand. It's filled with sand and concrete on top." As a veteran of the second World War, Hackney knew what radioactive fallout could do. He built his shelter above ground... unlike some of his neighbors. "The reason I built above ground is because the water table in Wilson is only 4 to 5 feet in the ground. If you'd put this thing in the ground you're more likely to go swimming instead of having a dry fallout shelter."

A narrow hallway now leads to a storage room and a place to store a bottle or two of wine. But for years, this room was stocked with food, water and blankets and this veteran was confident it would have done the job. "Just like the shield a doctor would use for x-rays to stop the radiation from coming in." Building this small fort cost $5,000... a small fortune by 1960 standards. "Any regrets about building this and making the investment? Well.. If I had made the investment in the stock market it would have been a lot smarter... But that's 20/20 hindsight... (laughs)"

I guess the bottom line is you're glad you never had to test it... I'm glad it's a wine cellar and storage room.