The Public Fallout Shelter

Click the image to watch "About Fallout," a 1963 film by the Office of Civil Defense.

DCD explained the problem of fallout this way to residents:

When a nuclear bomb is detonated, the debris from the explosion contains radioactive material that can be lethal if exposure to it is prolonged. Fallout is not like a gas that penetrates all areas. It is more similar to snowfall or particles settling after a dust storm. A mass of material between you and the fallout, such as a heavily constructed building, can serve as protection.[i]

The fallout shelter surveys launched in 1961 were performed by hundreds of architects and engineers trained in fallout shelter analysis, who utilized guidelines developed by the OCD detailing the degree of protection structures could provide against fallout radiation.[ii]As established by the OCD, a fallout shelter needed to maintain a minimum degree of adequate protection from fallout, equal to one-fortieth of the level of radiation present outside the shelter space (called a Protection Factor 40, or PF 40). [iii] About two-thirds of the buildings surveyed had PFs ranging from 40 to 250, with one third of the slots having PF 250 to 1000.[iv] Contrary to popular belief, two thirds of the public fallout shelters were aboveground, located in the core of buildings.[v]

In addition to protection requirements, public fallout shelters also had spatial requirements. District shelters needed to provide for at least 50 persons to facilitate efficient shelter management, stocking, and communications control. The minimum space allotment per person needed to be 10 square feet of floor space in a ventilated shelter, or 500 cubic feet in a non-ventilated or gravity-ventilated facility. [vi]

But identifying shelter space was only the first step in the development of public fallout shelters. Property owners either volunteered spaces for shelters or were solicited to do so. In order to mark and stock a shelter after fallout shelter analysts determined it met the minimum requirements, the property owner and government officials executed a “Fallout Shelter License or Privilege” form.  Under this contract, a given building would be marked as a public fallout shelter for use during a national emergency and stocked with supplies provided by the local government. In addition, the license authorized Federal and local government inspections and placed the local government in charge of care and maintenance of shelter supplies. The building owner was exempt from these responsibilities and could revoke the license at anytime by submitting a 90-day notice to the government. The building owner would receive no compensation for the use of his space. For these reasons, shelters depended on the benevolence of property owners willing to volunteer spaces in their buildings. [vii]

Estimates for persons needing shelter in Washington during a daylight attack ranged from 1.2 million to over 1.4 million.[viii] Given that DCD’s stated goal was to provide “one shelter space for each person, wherever he is at whatever the hour,” the number of shelters needed was astronomical. Understandably, planners ran into significant difficulty in fulfilling this requirement. In 1965, the “Community Shelter Plan Study for Washington, D.C.” identified 2,949,800 shelter spaces in the city—more than double the need—but since many were in the center city, officials lamented that only 40 percent could be used in an emergency.[ix] 73 percent of shelter spaces were located in the downtown or Southwest areas, while the peak population in this area was only 23 percent of the city’s total. Hence, populations on the periphery of the city would be left out in the cold of a nuclear winter in an emergency. For instance, officials estimated that 92 percent of the Anacostia population would not be able to find shelter. “What must be prevented is overcrowding that would result in loss of life through panic and suffocation,” stressed the 1965 study, foreseeing the chaos that would likely ensue given the geographic shelter disparities. [x]

Eventually, designated fallout shelters in the District were stocked with food, medical kits, radiation detection instruments, sanitation kits, and water drums. [xi] Food and water supplies were meant to last two weeks. [xii] Food provisions mainly consisted of wheat biscuits, which one official described as tasting like “animal crackers.” [xiii] The two-week food ration of fortified wheat wafers would provide about 10,000 calories per person over the period. [xiv] “They’re good with a little bit of cheese on them with a martini on the side,” said a local civil defense apparatchik. “But you wouldn’t want to eat them for a couple of weeks with nothing else.” [xv]

To learn about fallout shelter design, click on the image.

Depending on the location of the detonation, the public would have had around 30 minutes to take cover in a fallout shelter. Advance warning systems supposedly would have been able to alert Washington residents of a launched attack up to 14 minutes before the bomb’s explosion. A “take cover” signal given by the city’s siren system would sound and special AM radio stations would broadcast the warning three or four minutes later.[xvi] The public sign system—those luminescent black and yellow signs posted throughout the city—would orient the public to nearby shelter facilities. D.C. shelter planners wrote of the importance of the signs: “The utility of the sign system is dependent on the availability of clearly marked shelter facilities throughout the city and especially near points regularly visited by tourists.” Planners also pointed out the need to have the signs visible along commuter routes. [xvii] DCD officials insisted that the shelters, located in public and private buildings normally inaccessible at certain hours, would be available to the public 24 hours a day. If not, citizens were authorized to use whatever means necessary to get into locked shelters in the event of an emergency.[xviii]

CONTINUE READING: 3: Establishment of D.C. Fallout Shelters


[i] Community Shelter Plan Study for Washington, DC, Volume I: Plan Study and Recommendations, Washington, D.C.: Government of the District of Columbia, Office of Civil Defense, 1965, 93.

[ii] Civil Defense 1965 MP-30, Washington D.C.: United States Department of Defense, Office of Civil Defense, 1965, 15.

[iii] Community Shelter Plan Study for Washington, DC, Volume I: Plan Study and Recommendations, Washington, D.C.: Government of the District of Columbia, Office of Civil Defense, 1965, 2.

[iv] Krugler, 172.

[v] Civil Defense 1965 MP-30, Washington D.C.: United States Department of Defense, Office of Civil Defense, 1965, 15.

[vi] Community Shelter Plan Study for Washington, DC, Volume I: Plan Study and Recommendations, Washington, D.C.: Government of the District of Columbia, Office of Civil Defense, 1965, 2.

[vii] Annual Report of the Office of Civil Defense for Fiscal Year 1965, Washington D.C.: United States Department of Defense, Office of the Secretary of the Army, 1965, 23.

[viii] “103 Shelters Licensed, Five Are Ready for Use,” The Washington Post, October 26, 1962, p. A14.

Community Shelter Plan Study for Washington, DC, Volume I: Plan Study and Recommendations, Washington, D.C.: Government of the District of Columbia, Office of Civil Defense, 1965.

[ix] Community Shelter Plan Study for Washington, DC, Volume I: Plan Study and Recommendations, Washington, D.C.: Government of the District of Columbia, Office of Civil Defense, 1965,  ix, 4.

[x] Community Shelter Plan Study for Washington, DC, Volume I: Plan Study and Recommendations, Washington, D.C.: Government of the District of Columbia, Office of Civil Defense, 1965, 4, 7, 33.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[xv] “Bangladesh Hungry to Get Biscuits Kept in CD Tunnel,” The Washington Post, September 13, 1962, p. D1.

[xvi] Community Shelter Plan Study for Washington, DC, Volume I: Plan Study and Recommendations, Washington, D.C.: Government of the District of Columbia, Office of Civil Defense, 1965, 32.

[xvii] Community Shelter Plan Study for Washington, DC, Volume I: Plan Study and Recommendations, Washington, D.C.: Government of the District of Columbia, Office of Civil Defense, 1965, 54.

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

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s