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Fallout shelters | What’s up with that?

Are the Cold War hidey-holes functional?

There are still signs for Cold War–era fallout shelters on buildings around the city. Are most of them still functional, in case of some sort of emergency?—J.B., Irving Park

“Fallout shelters were scattered all over the city,” says Chicago’s official historian, Tim Samuelson. In 1961, a year before the Cuban Missile Crisis erupted, President Kennedy began urging Americans to build the doomsday hideouts. The city’s mid-’90s fallout-shelter inventory totalled approximately 1,000, one third of the late-’60s peak. Today, Samuelson says, “the era of a vast network of fully stocked neighborhood walk-in shelters is long gone.”

Despite the ambient fear of a nuclear terror attack, the Cold War refuges don’t figure into the modern Chicago Office of Emergency Management and Communications disaster plan. “Current sheltering plans do include public facilities, such as libraries, schools and Park District facilities,” OEMC spokeswoman Therese Kordelewski says. “The fallout shelters have been pretty much abandoned.”

The surviving, distinctive signs—three yellow triangles on a black circle—aren’t the only reminders fallout shelters sit just below the surface. “It’s not uncommon for people to occasionally rediscover supply stashes in long-forgotten hidey-holes of public buildings,” Samuelson says. Last February, Chicago Department of Transportation crews unearthed a 1962 shelter while working on Lower Wacker Drive. Workers found a kit for making a portable bathroom, toilet paper, water stores, medicine and “survival biscuits.” Samuelson describes it as “sort of an apocalyptic version of finding King Tut’s tomb.”