Stupid Question ™
Oct. 7, 1999
By John Ruch
Q: Back when every government building had one of those “Fallout Shelter” signs, what was the shelter like?
A: President John Kennedy kicked off the public shelter program in 1961.
The idea was for mass shelters to shield people who survived major A-bomb explosions from the fallout (rain of radioactive particles) afterwards.
Nearly any room that could hold 50 or more people—and had walls thick enough to block major radiation—would do. These rooms were mostly found in existing buildings, both public and private. By 1965, there were shelters for more than 77 million people.
Almost all shelters were “dual-use”—meaning the room had a day job. Bathrooms, classrooms, basements, storage rooms, laundries, gyms, even library stacks and shooting ranges were designated fallout shelters. School blueprints of the era often include such cheery labels as “Fallout Shelter & Lunch Room.”
Each was supposed to contain one week’s food and medicine, two weeks of water, and sanitation and radiation-measuring kits.
The food was wheat-based crackers or biscuits, sometimes supplemented with hard candy.
Medical kits contained more than 30 items, from aspirin to penicillin to medical manuals. They were marked, “This Unit Contains No Narcotics”—though they contained phenobarbital, which was removed from shelter stocks in the 1970s when it was made a controlled substance. (Among its purposes within the shelter kits was tranquilizing troublemakers.)
If the shelter didn’t have a well or storage tanks, it got dark-green steel water cans that were filled on-site with tap water. Each was 16 inches in diameter, 21 inches high and held 17.5 gallons. Plastic liners let them double as toilets.
Sanitation kits came in light-tan fiberboard drums the same size as the water cans. They contained a toilet seat to put atop the drum, toilet paper, sanitary napkins and similar sundries.
The radiation kit had three different types of radiation meters (including Geiger counters and penlight-style “dosimeters” to measure personal radioactivity), along with batteries and instructions.
Some kinder, gentler shelters included cots, blankets, generators, radios and decontamination showers. (Hospital shelters were also far fancier; in fact, entire field hospitals were stored at places such as Columbus, Ohio’s Port Columbus airport.)
How much of this stuff you would actually find would depend on timing and luck. Some shelters were never stocked; few were replenished when the stock went bad. Some stocks were carelessly thrown out.
By the mid-’60s, the “mutually assured destruction” policy made surviving nuclear war seem ludicrous. Most shelter supplies were spoiled by the early ’70s; shelters were no longer even inspected by 1985; and federal funding for the program ceased in 1988.
Today, all fallout shelters are defunct, their supplies discarded or sold (often to developing countries).