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Fallout shelters: Cold War history in your neighborhood

At the height of the Cold War in the 1960s, the District of Columbia prepared hundreds of fallout shelters. However, since the capital was a primary target in the event of nuclear war and most shelters were located downtown, the city's fallout shelters could not have saved Washingtonians in a direct attack.

Photo by cphoffman42 on Flickr.

Had a nuclear bomb detonated over Washington during the early 1960s, most of Washington's 760,000 residents would be dead, even those who made it to a fallout shelter. An SS-4 missile—the type deployed to Cuba during the missile crisis—would have left a 1.5 mile radius of complete destruction.

Fallout shelters only protect occupants from fallout—the deadly radioactive dust resulting from a nuclear detonation—but not the blast itself. Nevertheless, scores of D.C. shelters were marked by luminescent black and yellow signs, stocked with provisions for hundreds of thousands of people and located in over a thousand public and private buildings throughout the city.

The District of Columbia Office of Civil Defense (DCD) was formed in 1950 to ready the American capital for nuclear disaster. DCD's impotence was no secret. In 1956, the DCD director himself called a nuclear attack on Washington "pretty near hopeless." DCD had few options. Evacuation plans were a fantasy. Blast shelters were uneconomical if not impossible to construct.

Fallout shelters, however, were relatively inexpensive to prepare and could protect Washingtonians from a real threat. That the threat of fallout was irrelevant to D.C. did not matter. In the face of almost certain annihilation should the bombs fall on Washington, the DCD had to do something, and so DCD came to
champion the fallout shelter.

In the midst of the 1961 Berlin Crisis, President John F. Kennedy called for millions of dollars to be allocated for the purpose of locating and marking fallout shelters in existing buildings, stocking the shelters with food and other supplies, and improving air raid signals.

In 1961, D.C. began a citywide shelter survey to locate appropriate shelter spaces, estimating that up to 1.4 million people would need shelter in a daylight attack. Fallout protection is relatively simple to achieve—you only need a certain mass of material between you and the fallout to protect yourself from radiation.

For this reason, shelters could be located in the basements or cores of preexisting buildings. Since the dangers from fallout could last as long as two weeks, shelters needed to be stocked with commensurate food and water supplies, as well as radiation detection instruments, medical supplies, and sanitation kits.

D.C. opened its first shelter in February of 1962 at 1412 K St NW.

By the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, only five fallout shelters were ready in the city, including one at Union Station. But by 1963, over 500 were stocked and ready for the Soviet bombs to fall, and in March of 1965, DCD finished its 1,000th fallout shelter.

Shelters were located in every corner of the city, in all types of buildings, including schools, apartments, and churches. Government buildings on the Hill could provide for 36,000 people and were stocked with 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 building alone.

Local civil defense officials, however, never reached their goal of providing "one shelter space for each person, wherever he is at whatever the hour." Since the vast majority of suitable shelters were located downtown, populations on the periphery of the city would be left out in the cold of a nuclear winter—officials estimated that 92% of the Anacostia population would not be able to find shelter.

By the early 1970s, Americans had lost interest in civil defense. Tough times seemed past with Détente, and the Federal government began phasing out funding for stocking shelters.

In 1974, twenty tons of whole-wheat crackers—fallout shelter rations baked in 1962—were removed from the streetcar tunnel shelter beneath Dupont Circle and sent to Bangladesh to feed victims of monsoon floods. Supplies elsewhere in the city moldered in forgotten fallout shelters across the city.

Today, fallout shelter signs are the only remains of a decade of civil defense preparations in Washington. Only 5 t0 10% of the now faded signs remain on D.C. facades. The terrifying significance of the sign has since faded as well, but not its historical importance.

Fallout shelter signs in the District of Columbia must be preserved as monuments to one of the most frightening periods in American history and as a reminder of the threats we still face today.

To locate fallout shelters in your neighborhood and learn more about shelter history and preservation, visit District Fallout.


Add a comment »

So we sent 12-year old biscuits to Bangladesh?!

by Fritz on Nov 10, 2010 2:14 pm • linkreport

Yep, got one on the back on my building in Mt. Pleasant. Don't know the details of what room or how much food was kept there.

by 80p on Nov 10, 2010 2:18 pm • linkreport

I think every Arlington public school I was ever in had shelter signs. Usually down to the boiler room area. Arlington also kept up testing of their air raid horns up until the mid- to late-70's at least. Every Wednesday at 11.

by Lou on Nov 10, 2010 2:30 pm • linkreport

I'm a student at Catholic University, and I think there are three buildings on campus (including my dorm) that have fallout shelter signs.

by Mickey Jackson on Nov 10, 2010 2:45 pm • linkreport

The original security theater.

by RJ on Nov 10, 2010 3:04 pm • linkreport

My favorite air raid shelter is the halllways of the sixth floor of the Longworth House Office Building, located directly across Independence Avenue from the Capitol, which surely would have been a prime target for any nuclear attack. The hallways of floors 1 to 5 of this building have outside windows that overlook the roof of the cafeteria in the basement. However, the sixth floor hallway has no outside windows.

by Vadranor on Nov 10, 2010 3:04 pm • linkreport

Kind of funny that the list of shelters provided on the linked website includes a couple of foreign embassies. Because when the bombs start falling, you may as well invade some other countries.

by Lou on Nov 10, 2010 3:11 pm • linkreport

The loss of interest in civil defense is quite telling... from what IS an elitist government, marked in part by the incomplete road network and the failure to build such things as an Arizona Avenue Birdge, I-66 K Street NY Avenue Tunnel, a compleet Canal Road Parkway and an evolution of JFK's B&O Route North Central Freeway.

by Douglas A. Willinger on Nov 10, 2010 3:33 pm • linkreport

The elitism also works against rail transit- look at NY-NJ's ARC tunnel and the failure to build even a new RR tunnel under the Hudson since about 1899. After all, why does not evacuation route capcity even matter regarding RRs?

by Douglas A. Willinger on Nov 10, 2010 3:38 pm • linkreport

You have 15 minutes to get to Union Station and catch a train which will get you out of the blast radius. Go now. See if you can make it happen.

In the case of an ICBM attack on Washington, the government would have about 30 minutes to initiate a launch on warning attack. They might not alert citizens of the danger immediately.

Even if they did, 30 minutes would not be enough time to marshal trains, modify schedules on a large scale, or even get very much of the populace to the train station and out of the blast zone.

It takes hours and hours to evacuate small places like Savannah, Georgia or Jacksoville, Florida during a hurricane warning - even with days notice.

In fact, it takes hours just to evacuate all of the commuters from Washington on a regular afternoon. In the panic of a short-notice evacuation, the situation would be hopeless.

The idea that any amount of highway or rail capacity would serve to be a feasible evacuation strategy during a nuclear attack is laughable - and dated.

by Matt Johnson on Nov 10, 2010 3:52 pm • linkreport

I certainly remember seeing fallout-shelter (or "Civil Defense" signs in public buildings when I was growing up in central Massachusetts in the 1960s.

I wonder whether anyone has done a similar mapping/history effort for the Maryland/NoVA suburbs? Surely, if the worst had happened, suburbanites would have been less likely to get killed in the blast and more likely to seek shelter from the fallout.

by Greenbelt Gal on Nov 10, 2010 3:53 pm • linkreport

+1, RJ.

what's meant by "the Anacostia population"? is that meant to be shorthand for "everyone east of the river," or are we talking about the neighborhood here?

by IMGoph on Nov 10, 2010 4:01 pm • linkreport

RJ: Security theater is exactly what is was.

IMGoph: The CD planners were specifically talking about the Anacostia neighborhood, but anyone in outlying areas would have been hard-pressed to find shelter.

Greenbelt Gal: No efforts have been undertaken in D.C. suburbs to preserve signs that I know of, although the original maps of shelters still exist. Surburbia certainly afforded a greater chance of surviving nuclear attack -- after all, it was a justification for decentralized development since the early days of the Cold War.

by Adam Irish on Nov 10, 2010 4:18 pm • linkreport

In case of nuclear attack, I'd rather be far, far away from it or right at ground zero. Being on the immediate periphery would not be a good place.

by Fritz on Nov 10, 2010 4:21 pm • linkreport

By the time that Ronald Reagan was elected, the strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction practically required that the vast majority of people were left as defenseless as possible. In effect, the superpower governments held hostage each others' populace. The greater the assurance of outright eradication of that hostage group, the more secure the opposition group felt. Tensions thus decreased as preparedness fell. Visible efforts to prepare tended to raise tensions. Even when North Korea had no nuclear capability, they became a pariah state in part because of their incessant "preparations for survival".

Fallout shelters came to be viewed, under this concept, as provocation.

In the Greater Washington Metropolitan Area, civilian fallout shelters were widely viewed as a complete waste of time and expense, anytime much after 1982 or so, when "repurposed" Casio calculator watches so improved Soviet intercontinental ballistic missile guidance systems as to reduce their CEP ("circular error probable") from about 12 miles to less than 300 yards.

by Thomas Hardman on Nov 10, 2010 5:36 pm • linkreport

Matt Johnson, the subway system is much better at defense than some stupid fall out shelter. From my home in Takoma, I could run to the red line and be in Forest Glen with plenty of time to set up a tent.

by JJJJ on Nov 10, 2010 8:40 pm • linkreport


You really believe that such a nuclear attack would be the only type of attack?

Apparantly the Pentagon has simply given up upon civil defense regarding bioweapons.

by Douglas A. Willinger on Nov 10, 2010 9:03 pm • linkreport


Hard to know how to tell you this, but anything that would knock down your house in Takoma Park would not leave a lot of camping spots in Forest Glen.

I should also mention that a tent isn't going to do a lot to help you against the radioactive fallout of a nuclear strike.

by Thomas Hardman on Nov 10, 2010 9:07 pm • linkreport

@ Douglas A Willinger:

Hey, I have long contended that "any government that doesn't satisfactorily prepare against radioactive rabid zombies dripping with nerve gas, is a government that just doesn't take Homeland Security seriously".

I can only recommend to all interested parties that they take in a long-overdue re-reading of Robert Anton Wilson's "Illuminatus" trilogy. ;)

"Law of Fives", in case anyone forgot. And while we're "imminentizing the Eschaton", don't forget that zombies run amok in the afterglow of a massive global nuking inevitably arrive just after the plague that created them, and all of this only ever comes on the heels of an economic meltdown, and the election of a Republican majority in the House of Representatives.

Two down, three to go. Bird flu, anyone? ;)

by Thomas Hardman on Nov 10, 2010 9:15 pm • linkreport

@Douglas Willinger:
Well, this is an article on fallout shelters.

by Matt Johnson on Nov 10, 2010 10:16 pm • linkreport

Which are useful not only against nuclear fallout, but are useful for storage of provisions such as foods and medicines which could be useful in the case of an event.

Of course, it appears that a decision has already been made to ration any such usefulness to as small a slice of society as deemed feasible.

by Douglas A. Willinger on Nov 10, 2010 10:26 pm • linkreport

I really wish Homeland Security officials today would take a long hard look at the decades of over-reaction and paranoia America went through while "fighting" communism. Unfortunately the State is leading us down the same road of unsubstantiated fear and resource waste while engaging in the war on terror.

by OX4 on Nov 11, 2010 6:29 am • linkreport

Except that previously civil defense was a consideration, whereas today it is somehow deemed irrelevant, with a preference for mass UNCHECKED surveilance by TPTB.

by Douglas A. Willinger on Nov 11, 2010 2:55 pm • linkreport

Bolton and Yoo are working hard to get us back to those glory days...

by DavidDuck on Nov 11, 2010 4:57 pm • linkreport

My husband and I just bought a home that has a fallout shelter in the basement. My husband thinks it's a waste of space but I think it is SO COOL.

by Shauna on May 27, 2015 2:34 pm • linkreport

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