Establishment of D.C. Fallout Shelters

Posting a fallout shelter sign on a building in Washington, D.C. Image released to the public by the Department of Defense, Office of Civil Defense, December 1961.

D.C.’s first public shelter was opened on February 20, 1962 at the Ambassador Hotel at 1412 K St NW. The shelter was approved for 874 persons.[i] By September, food, water and other emergency supplies for 5,500 persons were stockpiled in shelters at Union Station, Government Printing Office Warehouse No. 4, and the Ambassador Hotel. 28 schools were reportedly set to receive supplies as well and school basements and interior corridors were designated as shelter areas. [ii]

The Cuban Missile Crisis made the public shelter project ever more urgent. In July of 1962, the Soviet Union began preparing missile bases in Cuba to defend its ally and for strategic purposes. One type of these missiles, a one-megaton warhead called the SS-4, had a range of 1,100 nautical miles. If fired from San Cristobal in Cuba, the SS-4 could reach Washington in less than 15 minutes.[iii] Kennedy resolved to remove the missiles from Cuba, and in the tense days of the island’s blockade in October, the world teetered on the brink of nuclear war. Worried Washington residents responded in kind. At the peak of the crisis in late October, DCD answered over 1,000 telephone calls in just a 24 hour period, the vast majority of them inquiries about public shelters. Callers were told that fallout shelter space in D.C. was “nonexistent or minimal.”[iv] Although the building survey had been underway for months, only 103 of 1,083 qualifying buildings were “licensed” fallout shelters (meaning the owners permitted their use as shelters).[v] By Thursday, October 25, only five of D.C. fallout shelters were ready for use (stocked with food and water and marked with signage). The first five completed shelters were Union Station, the Ambassador Hotel at 14th and K Sts NW, Government Printing Office Warehouse No. 4 at North Capital and G Sts NE, Macfarland Junior High School at Iowa Ave and Upshur Sts NW, Interstate Commerce Commission Building, 12th St. and Constitution Ave NW.[vi] All were located in the center of Washington and, as fallout shelters, could not have protected occupants from the detonation of a one-megaton warhead.

Local and Federal Civil Defense officials stepped up the effort as a result of the flood of queries received during the crisis, but progress remained slow.[vii] A month later, DCD had only readied five more shelters. “If there’s every any reason for you to flee to a fallout shelter here or anywhere else in the next few years,” wrote The Post in November of 1962, “there’s only one way to go—with God and with groceries.” Despite the renewed pressure, DCD estimated that it would take four to six years to finish the job. The issue was not the availability of food stocks, but a shortage of trucks and a lack of the necessary storage space in shelters.[viii] The problem of spoilage was another anticipated issue, as officials believed food stocks would need to be replaced every two to three years.[ix]

DCD’s sluggish projections proved conservative, however. Fallout shelter implementation picked up rapidly in the coming months. By March of 1963, more than half of the 1,301 private and government buildings then rated as eligible fallout shelters were licensed by the DCD, and more than half of these had been stocked with $584,634 worth of provisions.[x] By April of 1963, the District had more fully equipped and licensed shelters than any other municipality in the nation. District civil defense officials had fully stocked 415 buildings to accommodate 300,000 people in the event of an attack. These included 187 federal buildings. DCD officials claimed the distribution of supplies to already designated shelters was increasing capacity by 3,000 spaces per day.[xi] By June, DCD had posted some 700 black and yellow fallout shelter signs on buildings throughout the city.[xii]

One year later, in June of 1964, DCD designated the National Guard Memorial at 1 Massachusetts Avenue NW as a shelter for 932 persons, bringing the city’s total shelter capacity to over 500,000. By this time, D.C. had equipped 928 fallout shelters with enough food and water to sustain a half-million Washingtonians for two weeks. 2.5 million pounds of wheat biscuits and 1.5 million gallons of water waited in the basements across the city for the Soviet bombs to fall. [xiii] In March of 1965, DCD readied the city’s 1,000th fallout shelter at the Francis de Sales School at 2019 Rhode Island Ave NE. By that time, D.C. shelters included spaces at 88 public and 20 private schools.[xiv] DCD, working with the Architect of the Capitol, had also prepared shelter space within the Capitol Building Group (consisting of 11 structures) for 36,000 people and stocked the facilities with over 280,000 pounds of food. 259 cases of carbohydrate supplement (in lemon or cherry flavor) and 1,393 cases of biscuits were stacked in the old subway tunnel and basement of the Capitol alone.[xv]

CONTINUE READING: 4: Decline of Civil Defense in D.C.


[i] “Ambassador Becomes District’s First Shelter,” The Washington Post, February 21, 1962, p. C1.

“28 Schools Listed Here For Shelters,” The Washington Post, September 13, 1962, p. A10.

[iii] Krugler, 174.

[v] Krugler, 175.

[vi] “103 Shelters Licensed, Five Are Ready for Use,” The Washington Post, September 13, 1962, p. A14.

[vii] “Federal CD Officials Speed Drive To Line Up Fallout Shelter Space,” The Washington Post, October 25, 1962, p. A13.

[ix] “10 Shelters Get Food Stocks– Only 990 to Go,” The Washington Post, November 7, 1962, p. B7.

[x] “673 Buildings Licensed As Fallout Shelters Here,” The Washington Post, March 28, 1963, p. B2.

[xi] “D.C. Leads In Number of CD Shelters,” The Washington Post, April 2, 1963, p. A4.

Letter from W.L. Scarborough to J. George Stewart, Architect of the Capitol, May 9, 1963.

[xii] “CD Head Fends Questions On Closed Dupont Shelter,” The Washington Post, June 1, 1963, p. A3.

[xiii] “D.C. Has 928 A-Shelters,” The Washington Post, June 30, 1964, p. B7.

[xiv] “1000th D.C. Fallout Shelter,” The Washington Post, June 30, 1964, p. A2.

[xv] Krugler, 184.