In the days of 'civil defense,' we built fallout shelters for survival. Now those stand empty, and the era of 'homeland security' offers few assurances.

November 21, 2001|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

Had Russia dropped the big one, this was the place to be: deep beneath fire station No. 9 in a bunker with 17-inch concrete walls, an emergency power generator and enough water to last its occupants -- Baltimore's mayor and 20 or so top city officials -- for two weeks.

Prepared as the city was -- warning sirens tuned, evacuation plan ready, more than 1,000 public fallout shelters stocked -- the big one never came. And as the nuclear bomb threat dwindled, so did the city office of Disaster Management and Civil Defense.

Its staff, headquartered in the bunker, shrunk to three mole-like souls who some days felt as much in demand as the Maytag repairman. Its shelves, stocked with never-opened radiation detection sets, rotting gauze and yellowing brochures, accumulated dust for decades. And the "impenetrable" bunker itself, built in 1952 to survive a nuclear blast, sprung -- of all things -- a leak.

"Here you have a building that's supposedly bombproof, and radiation-proof, and the ceiling leaks?" William Codd, a former director of the office, said during a recent visit, shaking his head the way a lot of Americans have since Sept. 11.

What happened to the bunker beneath the firehouse at 1201 E. Cold Spring Lane is not an exception: Whether a result of arrogance or ignorance, optimism or fatalism, neglect or design, civil defense in America -- the idea of protecting ourselves from enemy attack -- all but died.

Remember Pearl Harbor? No one under 60 was even around for that; and no one under 40 was around for the most searing days of the Cold War.

Our collective memory is as faded as the old fallout shelter signs that still hang rustily on some buildings -- three yellow triangles on a black circle. The public fallout shelters they once marked are long gone, along with air raid wardens, "duck and cover" classroom drills, and most "civil defense" offices themselves, their duties absorbed under the broader mission of "emergency management" agencies more primed for weather-related disasters.

Gone too, or at least serving different purposes, are most backyard fallout shelters -- the sort President Kennedy urged citizens to build at the height of the Cold War. Today, some are playrooms, wine cellars, or even museum pieces. The Smithsonian put one on exhibit in 1994 -- a relic, like much of the civil defense arsenal, of a fearful bygone era.

But on Sept. 11, bygone came back.

The attacks by terrorists on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the subsequent anthrax scare -- though the latter has yet to be officially linked with the same foreign terrorists, or foreign terrorists at all -- have given civil defense its biggest boost, more so even than Y2K, since the Cold War.

Today, there is a new set of fears; a new, but far from complete, set of tips to protect your home and family; a new set of symbols.

And, of course, a new name.

"Homeland security" has replaced "civil defense." A wily bin Laden has replaced a shoe-banging Khrushchev. Refuge, once to be taken in your basement, is now, most likely, to be taken upstairs. Solace, once found in having an underground shelter in your backyard, is now a bottle of Cipro in your refrigerator.

And the one symbol that said it all -- the mushroom cloud -- has been replaced by ... what? The crumbling World Trade Center? The airliner? The envelope? White powder? The question mark?

That we can't pick one image that sums up our fear is one way it's different this time.

Then, there was one enemy, and it was Russia; one threat, and it was nuclear annihilation -- or at least something so close to it that life afterward wouldn't be worth surviving. Today, it's less large-scale, but more pernicious: who knows who, from who knows where, doing who knows what.

As a result, civil defense, in its reborn and still evolving form, is a fuzzier notion this time around. How do you protect yourself and your family in your home? Well, that depends. Should you have a gas mask? Probably not. Fifty gallons of water on standby? Maybe so. What is overreacting? What is under-reacting? Are we heading back to a Cold War bunker mentality? Should we be?

Define the threats

"The government isn't really defining the threats. In the 1960s, they did. They said where they wanted people to go, what they wanted them to do. Now it's everyone go on high alert, but go about your business, go to the ballgame, go to the mall," said Laura McEnaney, a history professor at Whittier College and author of Civil Defense Begins at Home.

"I don't know what [Homeland Security Secretary] Tom Ridge is planning for us, but as of now they haven't articulated a domestic program in which ordinary Americans can participate, and as a result we feel just as impotent against a terrorist attack now as we did in the 1960s against a nuclear attack."

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