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Underneath three floors of classrooms, several hundred adolescent students, a cafeteria, and an auditorium at Adams Bilingual School in Adams Morgan lies a large, nearly empty concrete room with a few hallways and smaller spaces on the edges. Through one corridor is a rusty bicycle and a pile of dirt. In the corner, old basketball trophies accumulate dust. Over the years, several of the outer rooms have been converted into janitorial closets, and every step kicks up a small cloud of chalk. And perched on top of an old school chair is a guide to water purification in the case of nuclear contamination, circa 1961.
It’s one of D.C.’s only surviving nuclear fallout shelters: a perfectly preserved Cold War relic, complete with ration biscuits made in 1962 and medicine that expired before President Barack Obama learned to talk. According to the website District Fallout, which is dedicated to preserving and identifying remaining fallout shelter signs, only about 5 to 10 percent of the shelters built are still marked. An unquantified but far smaller number still exist as shelters, which can be anything from minimally fortified rooms with supplies to large-scale floors like the one at Adams Bilingual School.
After Tuesday night’s presidential upset, and given Donald Trump’s support for nuclear proliferation, the District may someday need to revive its forgotten network of more than 1,000 Cold War-era fallout shelters.
Although most people don’t even know these shelters exist, one guy has written the book on them. When David Krugler, history professor at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, wrote This Is Only a Test: How Washington, D.C., Prepared for Nuclear War, he was struck by D.C.’s heroic futility during the 1950s and ’60s.
The short-lived D.C. Office of Civil Defense took only a few years to supply enough shelter space, plus two weeks of food, for 500,000 people. But the resources were unequally spaced. It was estimated, for instance, that 92% of Anacostia residents would be left out in the cold, and the vast majority of shelters were near the federal government’s buildings.
Private shelters, including a $20,000 series of spaces built by Hillwood Estate owner Marjorie Merriweather Post, supplemented the public defense, but were considered self-serving and inefficient. Joseph Parry-Hill, a building contractor who proposed creating a 100-person shelter below Military Road, was furious when the D.C. government rejected his plan. “I’m damned sore,” he told The Washington Post in 1962. “Private shelters are a selfish, immoral approach to the problem.”
Inevitably, upstanding men and women like Parry-Hill wanted to help. Patriotic citizens eagerly volunteered to be aircraft-spotters in “Operation Skywatch,” scanning the horizons for incoming planes. In pamphlets, bus advertisements, schools, and front lawns around the city, D.C.’s people bravely prepared for the worst.
The irony, however, is that a fallout shelter in D.C. would be functionally useless in the event of a nuclear attack. If the city itself were targeted, it would be instantly obliterated by the bomb. The danger from nuclear fallout—the deadly, snowflake-like particles that drift down after an explosion—would be irrelevant. Even if the shelter somehow stood, the supplies inside would only last for a few weeks. Anyone still alive after the initial blast would starve to death if they stayed, or die from radiation poisoning if they emerged. The shelters would only have served the city in the unlikely event of a nuclear attack on Baltimore, and even then, only under a specific series of conditions involving wind direction and the type of bomb. The aircraft spotters were looking for nothing, given that the Soviet government used missiles, not planes, which wouldn’t be visible at such a distance.
According to Krugler, D.C. residents weren’t blind to the futility of their efforts. Only a small minority of citizens actually believed the Civil Defense measures were useful. Most saw them as a way to ease the nation’s mind or to allay fears of government officials fleeing and leaving innocents behind. “A lot of people in Washington thought, ‘We’re targets, and there’s nothing we can do about it, so we should just get on with our daily lives,’” Krugler says, noting that in a place as precarious as a Cold War capital, calm is paramount. President John F. Kennedy’s refusal to leave D.C. during the Cuban Missile Crisis represented the ultimate extension of this belief.
Despite the nobility of D.C.’s efforts, furious mocking of civil defense proponents ensued. Protesters suggested passing gentlemen turn down their hat brims as protection, and some railed against the idea of hiding in holes instead of facing the Russian threat. In a Twilight Zone episode, a cruel shelter owner refused to allow his neighbors into his basement, leaving them to die (although according to D.C. law at the time, citizens were authorized to use any and all measures to get into a shelter).
In the early 1970s, as international tensions eased, public interest in civil defense declined. The city’s Office of Civil Defense became the Office of Emergency Preparedness, dealing mostly with natural disasters and crowd control. In 1974, 20 tons of ration biscuits originally produced for fallout shelters were sent to Bangladesh to feed monsoon victims. Over the years, old furniture or a need for office space began encroaching on space previously reserved for water tablets and crackers. Shelter signs fell off building walls, or rusted beyond recognition.
D.C.’s Historic Preservation Office says it has performed no restoration work on the spaces, and is not involved with their upkeep, so it seems not much will change in the near future.
According to District Fallout’s Adam Irish, who now runs a haberdashery in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, efforts to preserve the historic yellow-and-black triangle signs have failed. “The shelter spaces themselves were mostly makeshift to begin with and probably almost all” are “basement storage or something now,” he writes in an email. There is no way to tell how many shelters remain.
Though the days of anti-Soviet propaganda and crouching under desks may be over, a 2011 study funded by the Department of Homeland Security reveals that the government is still preparing for a nuclear attack on D.C. The study, “National Capital Region: Key Response Planning Factors for the Aftermath of Nuclear Terrorism,” includes a simulation of a 10-kiloton attack at 16th and K Streets, blocks away from the White House. Within a half-mile radius (unfortunately for us here at City Paper), death would be virtually guaranteed. As far away as Bethesda, fallout would claim many more lives.
The report estimates that 130,000 deaths would be preventable with proper shelter outside the immediate zones of destruction. While “proper shelter” doesn’t just mean designated fallout shelter space (any fortified building would do), the study suggests that outside downtown D.C. and in the suburbs, the old spaces might be of some use today. Of course, given Tuesday’s election outcome, it’s probably better to be safe than sorry, regardless.
Overall, though, we’re close to doomed. “The magnitude of a terrorist attack involving an [improvised nuclear device] will overwhelm all response resources,” the report concludes. It seems that, even as new fears (cyber warfare, jihadist terrorism) displace nuclear paranoia in the city’s mind, we are no better or worse off, in a practical sense, than we were 50 years ago. It may well be that the dusty Adams shelter, along with a few crooked yellow triangles scattered around apartment buildings, are the final testaments to this city’s brave last stand.