Clay County fallout shelter: Then and now

A sign marks the Clay County Courthouse to show its designation as a fallout shelter.
Staff Writer

The last time the sign had any relevance, President Ronald Reagan was pleading, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall."

That was June 12, 1987 and that was one of the final declarations of the Cold War.

Since then, an entire generation has not had to worry about fallout shelters, bomb drills or the threat of a nuclear holocaust.

Most people today are far more familiar with a storm shelter in their community than the term bomb shelter. But renewed saber-rattling from North Korea and word that California is going to bring back bomb drills has revived at least a history lesson and a few memories for those born before 1970.

"I know it's still out there. The shelter is right there, the vault," Clay County Chancery Court Clerk Amy Berry says of the "Fallout Shelter" sign, complete with radiation symbol, on the wall above the door at the east entrance of the downtown Courthouse.

The shelter is the Chancery vault which has two heavy metal doors and concrete walls a foot thick. It will hold 275 people, according to the sign, but it would be a crowded 275 with all the records now kept in the room.

"I've got two gallons of water and a first aid bag in there. Former Fire Chief Jimmy Littlefield gave it to me," Berry added, pulling out the bag to survey its contents -- a flashlight, a plastic tarp and a few other items more suited for storms and weather than nuclear fallout.

The shelter had no provisions for extended stay.

The shelter is the only remaining one identified in the city, as far as anyone can tell.

In response to a reporter's inquiry, Mayor Robbie Robinson, who was Chancery Clerk before being elected mayor, initially confused shelters with those for tornadoes, of which the city has two. Once reminded of the sign on the courthouse, his memory switched gears.

"I don't know of any others. But I remember the drills as a kid," Robinson noted. "Tornado shelters are what everyone thinks of these days. Most folks today don't even remember the fallout shelters."

"Our town used to have sirens, like the weather sirens we have now, but they were for nuclear bombs. They would sound them and we would go down into the basement of our school which was a fallout shelter. It was a big old brick building," recalled Clay County resident Brian Douglas.

"We did tornado drills, too, where you went in the hall and covered your head, but I remember the bomb drills, they were far scarier in my mind than the tornado drills," he related. "Those placards labeling shelters used to be on a lot of buildings in towns everywhere."

For a generation in the 1960s and early 1970s, fallout shelters were more a part of everyday life than storm shelters.

"That's what you worried about because that mean war and death and the end of the earth. Nuclear war was something you worried about. We had storms all the time in the South," described Edward Stevens.

During that era, the country made widespread plans to build shelters to try to protect as many people as possible should nuclear war break out.

The emergency broadcast systems used today by radio stations were developed then.

The shelters were built and supplied to support people for up to four weeks. That's how long experts thought it would take the nuclear dust to dissipate enough for it not to be a threat to humans.

And where possible, the shelters were built to withstand much of the impact of an actual nuclear blast.

The courthouse vault is one such structure. For those who don't remember, among the things recommended for shelters were one or more shovels, a pick, a bow-saw with an extra blade, a hammer, 4-mil polyethylene film, at least a 2-week supply of compact, nonperishable food, bleach, an efficient portable stove, wooden matches in a waterproof container, essential containers and utensils for storing, transporting, and cooking food, a hose-vented 5-gallon can, with heavy plastic bags for liners, personal hygiene supplies, candles, first-aid supplies, flashlights, batteries, a transistor radio with extra batteries, potassium iodide pills, and lots of water.

Meanwhile, a memo circulated in August among California emergency response agencies details how the state has been prepping for nuclear accidents and missiles for years and how those responses have intensified this year in response to North Korea's expanding nuclear and missile programs.

“We all know there’s a lot of talk about North Korea and the nuclear threat,” Los Angeles Emergency Management Department spokeswoman Kathleen Hutton said in September. “With the increased attention and threat, we’ve been looking at those plans to see if there’s anything more we can to do be operationally more ready."