PG NewsPG delivery
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Home Page
PG News: Nation and World, Region and State, Neighborhoods, Business, Sports, Health and Science, Magazine, Forum
Sports: Headlines, Steelers, Pirates, Penguins, Collegiate, Scholastic
Lifestyle: Columnists, Food, Homes, Restaurants, Gardening, Travel, SEEN, Consumer, Pets
Arts and Entertainment: Movies, TV, Music, Books, Crossword, Lottery
Photo Journal: Post-Gazette photos
AP Wire: News and sports from the Associated Press
Business: Business: Business and Technology News, Personal Business, Consumer, Interact, Stock Quotes, PG Benchmarks, PG on Wheels
Classifieds: Jobs, Real Estate, Automotive, Celebrations and other Post-Gazette Classifieds
Web Extras: Marketplace, Bridal, Headlines by Email, Postcards
Weather: AccuWeather Forecast, Conditions, National Weather, Almanac
Health & Science: Health, Science and Environment
Search: Search by keyword or date
PG Store: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette merchandise
PG Delivery: Home Delivery, Back Copies, Mail Subscriptions


Headlines by E-mail

Headlines Region & State Neighborhoods Business
Sports Health & Science Magazine Forum

Fallout shelters a casualty of peace

Sunday, August 29, 1999

By Brenden Sager, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In a sudden flash of light, it is over: Downtown buildings topple and burn, and survivors wander aimlessly amid the ruins of Pittsburgh.

So it never happened. But Allegheny County was ready if it did.

"OK, it's a bomb drill. Put your head between your legs and kiss your butt goodbye," said Chet J. Malesky, assistant director in the city's Department of General Services. He was recalling a bomb drill he endured in the 1960s at the now-closed St. Leo Elementary School on the North Side.

Allegheny County had 2,207 fallout shelters the last time anyone counted -- in 1978. Now they're as scarce as Pittsburgh Condors fans. The county's Emergency Management Agency has the only known surviving list, but many of the shelters are gone or long forgotten.

"You look at half of these things and buildings aren't there anymore," said Larry Boyle, a planner with the Emergency Management Agency.

The Red Peril threat of nuclear attack isn't what it used to be. Nevertheless, George Lucas wasn't the only one who resurrected "Star Wars" this year.

In January, the Clinton administration pledged $6.6 billion over five years to field a national defense system that can detect and shoot down enemy missiles. Congress passed a missile-defense bill in March, committing the Pentagon to building one.

But until that system is ready, there still are places to turn if someone in, say, North Korea gets an itchy trigger finger.

There is a fallout shelter sign on the G.C. Murphy store on Forbes Avenue, Downtown, and another on the Zone 5 police station in East Liberty.

Still another supposedly safe haven is the City-County Building. Malesky said the first floor still hadc a Civil Defense sign in a stairwell, pointing to the building's fallout shelter in the basement.

But the enemy -- whoever it is -- better hurry.

G.C. Murphy's shelter is nothing more than its basement, and the police station just has thick walls and nothing else for bomb protection.

And before long the room in the City-County Building will be filled with computer equipment. Malesky said it would become the operations center for all of Downtown's traffic lights.

Containers of "miscellaneous survival stuff" that had been in the shelter are long gone, Malesky said.

Wax and wane

Part of Malesky's current duties is to figure out how the city's 267 buildings would be used in an emergency.

He is worried more about natural disasters such as a tornado than nuclear attack. He doesn't even know how many of the city's public buildings, let alone private properties, are designated nuclear shelters. Even if he had to find out, he wouldn't know whom to ask.

"The feds? The county? You got me," he said.

If there is an answer, the county Emergency Management Agency's Larry Boyle would probably be the one to ask. He has the list of the county's nuclear shelters, the sheet that still designates the ones at Carnegie Mellon University as being at Carnegie Tech.

Creating fallout shelters was an initiative under the Office of Civil Defense, a federal agency created during World War II. Civil Defense trained regular people to fight fires, practice air raid drills and make sure their neighbors turned off their lights at night so bombers wouldn't have targets.

"They based everything here on what London had done," Boyle said. "Then after the war, it faded out."

During the 1950s, there wasn't much threat of traditional aerial bombing, but then the specter of nuclear attack began to rise. Civil Defense began looking into how people could protect themselves from that. Then when the Cuban missile crisis came in 1962, it was "panic time," Boyle said.

According to a report, "A Study of In-Place Shelter Protection in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania" from the State Council of Civil Defense and dated August 1978, many state residents had "knee-jerk reactions" to the crisis and began building fallout shelters.

"People were encouraged to build their own shelters at home in their cellars, or wherever space might be found," the report said. "Some of these were quite deluxe," stocked with crackers, candy, water, medical supplies, sanitation kits and radiation-detecting equipment.

"Then, when Vietnam came along, they forgot all about it," Boyle said.

Fallout shelters and the items in them "fell into a state of disarray, if not actual decay," the report said.

When the war ended, Pennsylvania's Civil Defense conducted a survey to determine the status of the "Community Shelter Program so that corrective measures might be taken to make the program a viable one."

In October 1977, Civil Defense representatives in counties across the state began to tally up their shelters. They counted 18,343 shelters, with 2,207 in Allegheny County, 290 in Beaver County, 106 in Fayette County, 50 in Indiana County, 2,748 in Philadelphia County, 95 in Washington County and 33 in Westmoreland County.

An accompanying report concluded "that the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency, and any other federal agency that is responsible in any way for the protection of the citizens from nuclear fallout, exert necessary leadership that will result in adequate and appropriate protection of the people from this potential danger."

Then everyone forgot about the shelters for good.

Top-down problem

Malesky started working with the city in 1981 in the warehouse division. One of his duties in the mid-1980s was to be "somewhat" responsible for removing the fallout survival gear left in the shelter so the area could be used for storage.

Malesky said there used to be 20 or 30 green barrels in the City-County Building containing toilet paper, garbage bags and crackers. At the time the room was converted for much-needed storage space, he said. The last known condition of the green barrels' contents remain a mystery.

Boyle said the Office of Civil Defense suffered a similar fate; its use withered away in light of more urgent problems.

"The natural hazards were wiping out more people than war," Boyle said.

There was a push in the 1980s to federalize emergency management services to respond to natural disasters. The role of Civil Defense became absorbed into the new Federal Emergency Management Agency in about 1990. Its mission to maintain fallout shelters didn't, Boyle said.

Now, if a problem at the local level is too great for the Allegheny County Emergency Management Agency, it turns to the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. If PEMA struggles, it turns to FEMA.

The new emergency management paradigm is that trouble begins at home, not with problems between two bickering nuclear powers.

The new way is "all-hazard protection," Boyle said, which includes war among far more likely scenarios such as blizzards, floods and tornadoes.

"And also coming into play is terrorism," Boyle said, explaining that he was more worried about that than an intercontinental ballistic missile strike.

A terrorist with a small explosive device and a dangerous chemical, virus or bacteria could wreak havoc.

Then, the problem changes. People won't then be seeking shelter, they'll be running away, Boyle said, thus spreading the problem over a wider area.

"If anything like that happens in Downtown Pittsburgh, they're not going to be heading to shelters. They'll be jamming the Parkway."

bottom navigation bar Terms of Use  Privacy Policy