Photo by cphoffman42 on Flickr.

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.

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 D├ętente, 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.