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Which Way to the Nearest Fallout Shelter?

And how long has it been since somebody dusted down there?


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When President Kennedy told the nation to start building nuclear fallout shelters in 1961, Russians had a goofy leader who wore ill-fitting suits and waved his shoes at people. What with Boris Yeltsin's overworked liver and the last spate of Kremlin coup rumors, soon they could have Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a man so goofy he gets thrown out of--not bars--entire countries.

The CIA thinks Russia has about 27,000 nuclear warheads.

Even with the CIA's pathetic recent track record, it might be time for Chicago to dust off those shelters. Sure, today's thermonuclear devices create giant craters that would make a shelter at ground zero of little more use than CIA estimates. But . . . how can we put this delicately . . . what else have you got?

Fallout shelters. You probably don't take them seriously, but Chief Frank Moriarty has to. He's deputy coordinator of the Chicago Fire Department's Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Services.

"An airburst would be the first thing," says Moriarty pensively. "That would knock out all your communications. Now you're a sitting duck for the incoming--your radar is knocked out, your air defense won't work. You're a sitting duck." He pauses. "And they'll destroy you."

In other words, Moriarty thinks you should take shelters seriously, too.

"There's a great apathy and a false idea that we're out of all danger of a nuclear attack, and that's not so," he counsels. "What we have at play in the world is a lot of foreign powers, once part of the Soviet Union, and a lot have nuclear arsenals. And the danger is [nuclear weapons] proliferating to third world countries and enemies of the U.S."

Moriarty paints his gloomy scenarios in a low, deliberate voice. To post-cold war ears, he can sound eerily like General Jack D. Ripper from Dr. Strangelove. In fact, his views aren't so far from the foreign policy mainstream. In a recent speech, defense secretary William Perry said that "it is possible that Russia will emerge from her turbulence as an authoritarian, militaristic, imperialistic nation, hostile to the West."

The Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control believes nuclear weapons are "a very real physical threat," according to research analyst Jordan Ritchie. "There are several countries in the world where development of nuclear bombs is a viable option, so we think it's a major threat," he says. "We still need to be vigilant because of countries like Iran and the development of technology to deliver the bomb."

"And another thing you should be aware of," Moriarty mentions, almost as an afterthought. "The more sophisticated nuclear powers like Russia may have possession of neutron bombs, because it does a foreign power no good to invade a country when it's all destroyed. They'd rather kill all the people."

Now maybe you're more interested in those fallout shelters?

Chicago's frenzied early cold war efforts to find atomic cover resemble a plot synopsis for a Road Runner cartoon. This is due at least partially to the close involvement of then fire commissioner Robert Quinn, best known today for setting off the city's air raid sirens to celebrate the White Sox pennant in 1959. Quinn was Chicago's acting or actual civil defense director for much of the 60s, and his famous '59 siren blast was a seminal moment in Chicago civil defense history.

"The 5 minute wail of more than 100 sirens at 10:30 p.m. Tuesday sent thousands rushing into the streets and caused near panic in almost every section of the city" reported the Tribune. So many Chicagoans rushed to their phones that the lines went dead, which didn't help. An Illinois Bell spokesman thought there may have been one other historical event that generated more calls--the death of President Franklin Roosevelt. Even then, those calls weren't all simultaneous.

Quinn said he thought the sirens were to have been authorized by a City Council resolution that read, in part: "Be it further resolved that bells ring, whistles blow, bands play and general joy be unconfined when the coveted pennant has been won by the heroes of 35th St."

Afterward, Quinn insisted it was the public's own fault if they were worried, because they didn't understand the warning system. A real take-cover siren would have been a series of wails, or a constant wailing up and down for three minutes, he said, not the steady wail that he had set off.

When President Kennedy called for shelters, wild plans began immediately for the world's biggest atomic bomb shelter: an underground city carved from a south-side quarry. Coincidentally, it was a short walk from Mayor Richard J. Daley's Bridgeport home. The scheme called for capping the quarry and boring into its walls to create the city, including a nuclear reactor for electricity.

Quinn pronounced the quarry site ideal. "People will have a different feeling about the possibility of bomb attack or radiation fallout when they know they've got some place to go. There won't be a defeatist attitude about survival under hydrogen bomb attack," he said, adding later, "It's another first for Chicago."

Chicago's American visited the quarry in November 1961 and reported that excavation was proceeding "at the rate of a small apartment building every 24 hours." Still, the underground city never got off the ground, so to speak. In a plan only slightly less wild, the quarry was briefly considered in 1985 as a site for the new Comiskey Park.

The abandoned downtown freight tunnel system was swiftly nixed as shelter space for Loop workers. Chicago's public works commissioner said the tunnels were waterproof, not counting "natural and almost unstoppable seepage and condensation," which was simply pumped out.

But the Sun-Times soon learned that a 1960 feasibility study of the tunnels had found them unsuitable. "A blast in the vicinity of the Chicago River would cause the tunnels to crack and flood," said the regional civil defense director. We know now, of course, that it doesn't take a nuclear bomb.

Patriotic Chicagoans who rushed to build personal bomb shelters were, for a time, outlaws. They needed building permits to build shelters, but they couldn't get them: the City Council had adjourned for the summer without approving the ordinance listing shelter specifications.

Federal, state, and city civil defense plans in 1961 called for Chicagoans to evacuate before a nuclear attack, if there was an adequate warning. The helpful motto was "Disperse or Die." Quinn disagreed with his own plan, calling evacuation impossible. After he pushed the air raid siren button, he told the Tribune, Chicagoans were "on their own."

In 1962 the Cuban missile crisis prompted Mayor Daley to put the city's civil defense network on a 24-hour alert at its center in the basement of a fire station at 4911 W. Belmont. It is fortunate indeed that the center never saw action. The center had an emergency gasoline generator and a short-wave radio in case power lines blew down. However, the radio depended on a 150-foot tower that we can surmise also would have been blown down by a nuclear fireball. If so, civil defense planned to use two mobile bus centers with short-wave radios.

During the missile crisis, police were given these helpful instructions: "Get the number of bombs, ascertain the megatons, notify communications, advise which areas are safe and unsafe, alert units."

Throughout the crisis, civil defense workers answered calls from a worried public. A typical question was, "If there's a bombing, what kind of food should I eat?" And the answer was, "Something that doesn't require much cooking."

Through all the false starts and wacky ideas, shelters were somehow being established. By 1967 the city claimed 1,482 shelters with room for 1,798,892 people. Unfortunately, they were poorly equipped. Chicago's American conducted a shelter survey that year after the city's civil defense department spent only $120,000 of its $370,000 budget. It found outdated food and medicine, useless Geiger counters, and 500 shelters completely unstocked. The civil defense department was allowed ten employees but hired only five, not even using the other openings for patronage. Civil defense director Quinn, who was still fire commissioner, didn't bother collecting his $15,000 civil defense salary. He was unavailable for comment.

In 1966, a shelter survey by Chicago's American had advised terrified citizens fleeing a nuclear holocaust to bring an ax and a dipper to the fallout shelters. The ax was for breaking in, since most shelters were located in buildings closed at night. The dipper was for getting water out of toilets, since most of the shelters' water containers didn't contain any water.

You've seen the ominous black-and-yellow fallout shelter signs, camouflaged by grime on a brick alley wall or tacked up more prominently, for instance, just under the glowing blue Citibank sign at Madison and Dearborn. But which fallout signs signal a building that still harbors a shrouded, forgotten shelter, and which buildings that do contain shelters have lost those classic signs?

"My only inventory, I have 10,000 buildings listed, and out of that a good number are probably not suitable anymore," says Chief Moriarty unhappily. "To be sure, it's not the responsibility of [city] government to identify these buildings." An accusing edge creeps into his voice. "It's the Illinois Emergency Services Disaster Agency, Mr. Curtis Caldwell. He made a request for me to send him a list of all the buildings that would be suitable. I have a staff of two, a minimal budget, and he gets federal funds to do it."

Caldwell, survivable crisis management engineer for the ESDA, sees things differently. "The local governments are responsible for updating" fallout shelter lists, he says, and ESDA's federal funds for surveying shelters were cut off in 1992.

Moriarty sounds bitter when he recalls past ESDA field surveys of the shelters. "They usually got somebody's kid on vacation from school to do the survey, and somehow they never get into Chicago," he says. "They go to the south suburbs, they go to the north suburbs, they never seem to get into the city."

"We didn't actually do any in Chicago," Caldwell admits. "We had to follow what was under a federal document, the Nuclear Attack Planning Base, which mapped out all the target areas in the country down to the kill-tonnage targeted at the area. We surveyed outside those areas, so we concentrated on the suburbs."

Moriarty doesn't think much of the Nuclear Attack Planning Base. The NAPB, he notes, "says Chicago will take 12 hits. That's two psi, two pounds per square inch, and everything will be incinerated. So there's not the slightest possibility that there will be any survivors. So they've pretty much written off the city of Chicago."

"No," says Caldwell, "we just didn't [survey Chicago] because under the NAPB, Chicago would be evacuated and everyone would be moved out to the suburbs and collar counties. That's the way the plans are formulated. So we concentrated on the areas that would not be affected."

According to those plans, says Moriarty, "you have deteriorating relations with a foreign power and increasing danger of a nuclear exchange. There's usually about two weeks of warning time in which we'd tell our population to assemble in certain areas where we'd have temporary housing set up for them. It's ludicrous. That's what the Pentagon has come up with for us."

Caldwell sounds uncomfortable when asked for a list of Chicago shelters. "We really don't like to give out individual shelter locations, because we don't really have an agreement with those building owners," he explains. "Early in the 60s when they did the shelters originally, they did sign agreements, but obviously those are outdated."

"Sure, I'd be happy to," says Moriarty when asked for a list of Chicago shelters. He says there are fewer than 1,000 fallout shelters left, as distinguished from general shelters for lesser disasters like the aftermath of a tornado. Apparently, though, things haven't changed much since the Chicago's American surveys.

"Equipment that was part of the shelter system once has been either lost or destroyed," says Moriarty. He's not sure if any of the shelters are supplied. "Some of them are, it's difficult for me to determine. Once in a while someone will call up and say, "What should I do with this box of supplies?' and I'll say, "Throw it out.' You might have the old water buckets and the plastic lining for them to dispose of human waste. Those things are still around. Some have blankets, very few. The few that I've found I've disposed of."

So it's probably still a good idea to grab an ax and dipper on your way out the door. On the brighter side, Moriarty expects a new $2 million siren system to be installed by next year. That will be handy: Contrary to the old saying, you can hide, but first you have to run.

As a public service, we would like to alert our readers to their nearest fallout shelter. Notwithstanding the Reader's reputation for long articles, space considerations preclude us from listing all the approximately 1,000 fallout shelters in Chicago. Instead, we've culled a short excerpt of Loop shelters from Chief Moriarty's list.

There's the Chicago Federation of Musicians, 175 W. Washington; Saint Peter's Church, 110 W. Madison; the Sherman House, 112 W. Randolph; Strombolt's Pizzeria, 41 N. Wells; the Victory Pipe Building, 170 N. Franklin; the Showmen's League, 300 W. Randolph; City Hall, 121 N. LaSalle; the Paperback Center, 6 N. Clark.

Since that list doesn't seem to have been updated for a while, take a hint from Ameritech and phone first.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration/Peter Hannan.


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