Cold War Bunker Network Repurposed For 21st Century Threats

Feb 19, 2013
Originally published on February 19, 2013 3:42 pm

There's an underground bunker at a radio station in Charlotte, N.C., where time has stopped. Built decades ago to provide safety and vital communications in the event of a nuclear attack, it's now a perfectly preserved relic of Cold War fear that's gained new relevance.

The secret bunker is part of the office lore that old-timers at WBT Radio whisper to the newbies. That's how radio host Mike Collins learned of it back in the 1980s.

"I remember being amazed that it would really exist," Collins says, laughing. "Because I thought, you know, in the event of a nuclear attack, we wouldn't be here to broadcast!"

A Piece Of The Early Emergency Broadcast System

There was a certain naivete in 1962, when schoolchildren were learning to duck under their desks in atomic bomb drills and President John F. Kennedy was taking to the airwaves with dire warnings of Soviet missiles in Cuba, "capable of striking Washington, D.C., the Panama Canal, Cape Canaveral, Mexico City, or any other city in the southeastern part of the United States."

The Cuban missile crisis prompted Kennedy to launch the Emergency Broadcast System in 1963 and outfit radio stations all over the country — including WBT — with doomsday bunkers that could bring his voice to the American people during a national crisis.

Descending into a chilly basement with government-issue green walls, the station's chief engineer, Jerry Dowd, shows off a photo of the room from 1963, when the shelter was built.

"As you can tell, not a lot has changed," he says. "The clock stopped."

Aside from the clock, stuck at 6:00, everything still works. Emergency supplies to keep some poor engineer alive and broadcasting for up to 60 days are still here, too.

"We have a leftover can of survival crackers that were date-coded from April 1963," Dowd says. "We had ... drinking water."

And, holding up something like a cardboard bucket with a hole in the top, he shows off the all-important "sanitation kit."

"What you did is you took the lid off," he says, chuckling. "It's a porta potty."

There are giant turntables here, poised to broadcast the most natural of things for the end of times: "A church program, I believe, that we had recorded in 1955," Dowd explains, lifting a dusty vinyl record up off the spindle.

A Lesson From Hurricane Katrina

Needless to say, the bunker has never been needed. As the Cold War ended, dozens of them across the country collected dust until the mid-1990s, when the national Emergency Alert System was expanded and a new wave of radio stations got emergency shelters designed to withstand an enemy attack.

Then Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf of Mexico. While other radio and TV stations went silent, WWL in New Orleans went into its bunker.

"That served as kind of a staple in the community and a source of information for citizens when a number of the other broadcast facilities were off the air," says Antwane Johnson, who heads the emergency public alerts and warnings program for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

After Katrina, Johnson says, FEMA realized the main reason for these doomsday bunkers was probably not an enemy missile anymore, but Mother Nature. Millions of federal dollars have since built a network of nearly 80 high-tech emergency shelters, known as Primary Entry Point Stations, to withstand hurricanes, tornadoes, solar flares — even a freak electromagnetic pulse that could cripple the nation's power grid.

FEMA keeps the technical details under wraps, but Dowd leads me outside to see WBT's new emergency shelter. It's actually made up of two aboveground sheds fortified by some kind of vacuum seal and very heavy doors.

"Now, for giggles and grins, turn your cellphone on and see if you can get any signal," Dowd urges.

No signal. The point is clear: A 21st century doomsday calls for lots more than dusty turntables and survival crackers in a cinder block basement.

Copyright 2014 WFAE-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wfae.org.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Now, a trip underground to a well-preserved relic of the Cold War. It's a bunker under a radio station in Charlotte, North Carolina. The shelter was built decades ago in the event of a nuclear attack. These days, there's a new generation of shelters for a new reason.

Julie Rose of member station WFAE has our story.

JULIE ROSE, BYLINE: The secret bunker is part of office lore WBT Radio old-timers whisper to the newbies. That's how radio host Mike Collins learned of it, working there in the 1980s.

MIKE COLLINS: I remember being amazed that it would really exist because I thought, you know, in the event of a nuclear attack...

(LAUGHTER)

COLLINS: ...we wouldn't be here to broadcast.

ROSE: There was a certain naivete in 1962 when school children were learning to duck under their desks in atomic bomb drills, and President John F. Kennedy was taking to the air waves...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PRESIDENT JOHN F. KENNEDY: Good evening, my fellow citizens.

ROSE: ...with dire news of Soviet missiles in Cuba.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

KENNEDY: Each of these missiles, in short, is capable of striking Washington, D.C., the Panama Canal, Cape Canaveral.

ROSE: The Cuban missile crisis prompted President Kennedy to launch the emergency broadcast system in 1963 and outfit radio stations all over the country, including WBT, with doomsday bunkers that could bring his voice to the American people during a national crisis.

JERRY DOWD: So this is a picture from 1963 when the fallout shelter was built.

ROSE: This is WBT chief engineer Jerry Dowd.

DOWD: I'm going to take this picture, and we're going to walk downstairs.

ROSE: Into a chilly basement with government-issue green walls.

DOWD: As you can tell, not a lot has changed.

(LAUGHTER)

DOWD: The clock stopped.

ROSE: At just after 6 a.m. or p.m. Would it even matter if an atomic bomb went off? Everything else still works, and the emergency supplies to keep some poor engineer alive and broadcasting for up to 60 days are still here too.

DOWD: We have a leftover can of survival crackers that were date-coded from April of 1963. We had water, you know, the drinking water. The most important thing we had was the sanitation kit. What you did is you took the lid off...

ROSE: Oh, it's like a cardboard bucket with a doughnut top on it - a hole.

DOWD: It's a Porta-Potty.

ROSE: And there are giant turntables poised to broadcast the most natural of things for the end-of-times. Dowd lifts a dusty vinyl record up off the spindle.

DOWD: This was a church program, I believe, that we had recorded in 1955.

ROSE: Needless to say, the bunker has never been needed. As the Cold War ended, dozens of them across the country collected dust, until the mid-'90s when the national emergency alert system was expanded, and a new wave of radio stations got emergency shelters designed to withstand an enemy attack. Then Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf of Mexico. While other radio and TV stations went silent, WWL in New Orleans went into its bunker.

ANTWANE JOHNSON: That served as kind of a staple in the community and a source of information for citizens when a number of the other broadcast facilities were off the air.

ROSE: Antwane Johnson heads the emergency public alerts and warnings program for FEMA. After Katrina, he says FEMA realized the main reason for these doomsday bunkers was probably not an enemy missile anymore. It was Mother Nature. Millions of federal dollars have since built a network of nearly 80 high-tech emergency shelters to withstand hurricanes, tornadoes, solar flares, even a freak electromagnetic pulse that could cripple the nation's power grid.

FEMA keeps the technical details under wraps, but Jerry Dowd leads me outside to see WBT's new emergency shelter. It's actually two aboveground sheds fortified by - well, I don't know what. Just listen as Dowd opens the door.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

ROSE: It's like a vacuum seal or something. Dowd lets the heavy door slam shut.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)

DOWD: Now, for giggles and grins, turn your cellphone on and see if you can get any signal.

ROSE: No signal. He smiles but won't say another word. The point is clear: A 21st century doomsday calls for lots more than dusty turntables and survival crackers in a cinderblock basement.

For NPR News, I'm Julie Rose in Charlotte. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.