Fallout shelters: What to do in case of nuclear attack

antiquesUPSTATE N.Y. — It’s so much more than duck and cover. You have to consider how much warning you have before the fallout reaches your house. Five minutes? Half an hour? Have you built your own shelter or are you left scanning the horizon for the nearest high-rise?

Detoured on our way to the cabin on Thanksgiving weekend, we wandered among a labyrinth of rusted metal and assorted junk that was the yard of a converted-barn-cum-antiques-shop. Swimming through dust and manoeuvring sideways around old furniture and older boxes inside, we found a porcelain lady for Jilly’s Unintentionally Creepy Doll collection. Melani had two other items in her hands.

“How much for this?” she asked the proprietor, holding aloft a watercolour of a Barbie-style fashion plate. The cardboard she was painted on was a slightly lighter yellow than the decades-old packing tape that lined its edges. The proprietor called his son.

“Oh, I can give you that for $25.”

She handed him the other item. “And how much for this?”

Inside the manilla envelope were pristine documents from the Cold War era: What to do in case of nuclear attack; how to build your own fallout shelter; rough blueprints; a list of area businesses that had guaranteed they wouldn’t screw citizens out of their hard- earned cash just because they were terrified and desperate.

“That? Oh, six bucks, I guess.”

We left with the envelope.


“The experience would be terrible beyond imagination and description,” reads the introduction. “But there is much that can be done to assure that it would not mean the end of our nation. There are no total answers, no easy answers, no cheap answers to the question of protection from nuclear attack. But there are answers. Some of them are in this booklet.”

Not cheap for 1961: A simple shelter that could be built in two weeks ran about $150. If the shelter was fully or partially underground, plywood was the way to go, topped with sandbags with more sandbags on hand to seal the entrance once the family was safely inside. An above-ground shelter would be built with sandbag-filled concrete blocks for the walls, with concrete blocks on the wooden roof. Still, when buying supplies, “The most effective discouragement for those taking advantage of the rising interest in home shelters is your caution and shrewdness.”

Standards for fallout shelters differ depending on whether they are indoors or out and how much snow the area gets. In upstate New York, where we found the package, the shelter had to withstand up to 40 pounds of snow per square foot, and recommendations were that each person in the household got 10 square feet to themselves. The shelters were expected to be useful for up to 10 years.

There might not have been a lot of time once the bomb hit. The documents detail how much time a family had to reach safety depending on ground zero. Women and children first, please: “Since young people are potential parents, they should be protected as much as possible following a nuclear attack to minimize the possible genetic effects on their descendants resulting from too much exposure to nuclear radiation.”

Don’t look at the blast, it warned. Get under something, and into a shadow if possible, as far from the reaches of radiation dust as possible. If the family was in sight of the blast, they had five to 30 minutes to find shelter before fallout started raining down. If they hadn’t built a shelter (and who wouldn’t? The bomb could go off at any moment), a high-rise 10 miles or more from the blast site could afford some security, provided refugees could get to the centre corridors or the basement—or at the very least below window-sill level.

Radiation becomes less effective over time, the literature says, but those first two weeks were the most dangerous. More horrifying still: radiation sickness, while not contagious, can imitate symptoms of extreme anxiety.

The Cold War is considered to have lasted, off and on, from 1947 until the U.S.S.R. fell in 1991, though fear was at its height throughout the 1960s. Canada, as America’s neighbour, had to have a plan in place in case a city like New York was hit with a nuke—the fallout would reach us within hours or days. But a look at the literature distributed to Canadians at the same time as the U.S. documents reveals that it wouldn’t be as cheap or easy for Canucks to build a suitable fallout shelter.

Because of our climate, simple plywood and a few sandbags would not be enough. We needed concrete, brick and mortar and one wonders whether the average Canadian could construct a building-within-a-building in two weeks in his basement or backyard.

In Your Basement Fallout Shelter, Blueprint for Survival No. 1, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker indicates that yes, it could and should be done: “There will be enough heat in the shelter, even in our Canadian winters—if you wear warm clothes—to safeguard you from the worst effects of exposure to cold. A prolonged stay in the shelter will almost certainly prove uncomfortable at times, but it should not be unbearable.”

According to the Canadian War Museum, the feds stayed out of the shelter business publicly beyond these printed recommendations, but the army “secretly constructed a network of 2,000 fallout shelters in government buildings: the Nuclear Detonation and Fallout Reporting System,” which probably included the infamous Diefenbunker.

As for the average Canadian: Did you have shelter? Did you have a Cold War nuke plan? If you’re my age or younger, do you know someone who did?



  1. We never had a plan as I think my parents just never gave it much thought even though I came of age at the Cold War’s height. I was terrified because of movies like The Day After and Threads. I guess with an oil refinery in our backyard, if a bomb hit Saint John, a shelter wasn’t going to do much good. 😉


    1. I guess Saint John wouldn’t have been a good target, though you would have seen some pretty good fallout if it hit New York or Boston and the wind was right.


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