Only 500 of the 7,000 designated emergency fallout shelters in Washington are stocked with the survival supplies experts agree would be needed to keep people alive until above-ground radiation reached a safe level after a nuclear attack. Most of these stocks, relics of civil defense planning from the early 1960s, are spoiled or rapidly deteriorating, according to the District's Office of Emergency Preparedness.
The shelters on OEP's computer list include underground parking garages, boiler rooms and other basement spaces in public and privately owned buildings. They vary greatly in size, depth below ground and construction.
The problem, said OEP's Ken McNaughton, the nuclear civil defense planner for Washington, is inadequate funding. The federal government has not spent a significant amount of money on civil defense since the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. McNaughton said President Reagan's $4.2 billion civil defense program "when spread out over seven years and 50 states . . . really isn't all that much."
OEP has an annual budget of $400,000 and like other local civil defense offices has to prepare for tornadoes, snowstorms, floods and other natural disasters. Consequently, there is not much money left over for nuclear survival planning, McNaughton said. Getting funds from Congress specifically earmarked for survival stocks--such as food and water, blankets and medical supplies--is difficult in the current atmosphere of budget cutting. In addition, many people believe that shelters will not survive a nuclear attack, and that stocking them with costly supplies is wishful thinking and a waste of money.
John Colbert, assistant director of planning for OEP, who is well-acquainted with its computer list of shelters, counts himself among the skeptics. If there is a nuclear attack, he said, "I'm heading straight to the Woodley Road Metro station. I'm going to grab something to eat and drink and head down there--13 stories under solid rock."
William Brownell, a part-time civil defense consultant and a nuclear survival expert who lives in Georgetown, agrees. He says the computer list of shelters is worthless. "The real number of fallout shelters is zero. 'G-I-G-O'--that's what I think of computers. You put garbage in and you get garbage out."
"A real shelter," Brownell claims, must be constructed with reinforced concrete and blast doors, and "must have a hand-operated air pump and filter, food, water and sanitation facilities. If it doesn't, it isn't. . . . There are two things that civil defense planners know: You can protect against a nuclear attack and we are not doing it."
Visits to some fallout shelters in downtown Washington that still have survival stocks, according to OEP's computer list, produced these findings:
* The Bender Building, 1120 Connecticut Ave. NW. Ricky Weissend, the building manager, surveyed the boiler room from his glassed-in office in the basement. "Everything was removed about six years ago," he said. "I assume the whole boiler room could still be used as a fallout shelter, because it's underground, but there's nothing here to accommodate anybody: no food, no water--nothing."
* The Commonwealth Building, 1625 K St. NW. According to Danny Owens, the building engineer, the survival stocks were removed six or eight months ago because they were "a health hazard." Owens said the water containers had corroded and leaked and "somebody had gotten in and torn everything up. . . . The fire marshal came out and said it was unsanitary. It was drawing rats and stuff." The basement is not well-suited as a fallout shelter anyway, he said. "People would have killed themselves getting back at [the survival stocks] in the boiler room. I've busted my head a bunch of times. Took me a month just to clean the place out."
* The Capitol Plaza Apartments, 35 E St. NW. This is a typical underground garage which, in a national emergency, would be converted to a fallout shelter. The entrance is secured by a flimsy steel door that rolls up and down like a window shade. The supplies are piled in a damp, dark corner, where they have mildewed and decayed since 1962. There are no cots or blankets; people presumably would sleep huddled on the cement floor between the grease spills.
* The National Geographic Building, 17th and M streets NW. This is a five-star fallout shelter which, compared to others, could make nuclear war about as unpleasant as a stay at the Ritz. In addition to folding cots, blankets, a private well for water, separate showers for men and women, two emergency power generators, bathrooms, medical supplies and a filtered ventilation system, it offers toothpaste and baby diapers. There is a good reason for the shelter's superior amenities, according to John Ott, the building's chief engineer. The building and its shelter were constructed in the early 1960s at the time of the Cuban missile crisis and President Kennedy's massive civil defense program.
If you think this is the shelter for you, you're in good company. "That's what the people at the Pentagon said," Ott noted.
But, asks Brownell, "How are they going to get people out when the entire building has collapsed on top of all the exits?"
Dr. Gerald F. Winfield, a senior associate at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health and a member of the pro-disarmament group Physicians for Social Responsibility, does not believe any kind of shelter will save people from a nuclear explosion. He cited the firebombing, with conventional weapons, of Dresden, Germany, in World War II as evidence that a one-megaton nuclear bomb would generate so much heat that all oxygen would be sucked out of shelters and they would be turned into ovens.
"It's foolish to assume that any kind of shelter will survive," Winfield said.
McNaughton said that Physicians for Social Responsibility members are overly pessimistic about the possibility of surviving nuclear war. "They advocate that we shouldn't make any plans in the event that negotiations with the Russians don't succeed. Everybody is in favor of banning nuclear weapons . . . but we want an ace to fall back on." Civil defense can be effective, McNaughton claims, "if people decide that they want it and if they are willing to spend the money for it."