Why Some New Yorkers Refused To Evacuate After A Nuclear Meltdown

Many of New York City’s basement apartments may once have been nuclear fallout shelters.

By Archana Aithal Rose October 28, 2016

For most New Yorkers, spotting an iconic fallout shelter sign generates either a question mark (if you’re a millenial), curiosity (time to Instagram that vintage sign and Google the heck out of it) or reminds you of dark times (for those much older). No matter what category you belong to, you may be interested in knowing that to every fallout shelter built, there were a whole lot of New Yorkers who once refused to occupy one, even in the face of a deadly nuclear attack.

Echoes of the Cold War-era: signs for nuclear fallout shelters still mark buildings across the city, after decades, in black and yellow. Most people never notice the withered signage and even if they do, they rarely know what it’s for. It’s hard to estimate the actual number of shelters, except that by 1963 there were approximately 18,000 of them with the department of defense planning another 34,000. The total number of shelters was estimated to be 230,000. You may think that the idea of a shield from a potential nuclear destruction would’ve put residents at ease, but a majority of New York’s fallout shelters were nothing more than glorified basements.


A few shelters sufficiently stocked with emergency supplies were reserved for superior government officials. Meanwhile, community shelters hardly met the sanitary and ventilation guidelines. Some, like the ones on East 131st Street in Harlem showed the shelters full of leaking raw sewage, garbage and rats, according to an NYT report. Today’s NY subway situation holds a similar sight but back in the 60’s this was hazardous.

Clearly, the flawed features of the fallout shelters were expected to do little to protect residents in the event of a nuclear attack. But whether the shelters were technically sound or not, there is now evidence to prove that some New Yorkers never planned on moving to a local shelter anyway. In fact, many residents may have equated the negative side effects of shelter living to radiation. Residents even thought, living in a windowless basement for days and weeks, especially with toxic neighbors, was far worse than nuclear fallout. Yup, you got that right. New Yorkers preferred nuclear fallout to a nuclear meltdown with a bad neighbor.

Not without logic though, this absurd phenomena was supported by a study in the 1960s, in which the Office of Civil Defense observed the potential social problems from fallout shelters. In a social experiment held in Georgia, 63 of the 750 participants left within 15 hours of taking refuge, further proving the point. In 1963, officials finally concluded that the solution to the problem was having effective management, thus launching a fallout shelter manager-training program, with a live-in superintendent for every shelter.

Way before the cold war officially ended, residential fallout shelters were gradually being cleaned out and converted into storage spaces, laundry or fitness rooms. Chances are, the next time you do your laundry or hit spin class, you’re standing in one of the many windowless fallout shelters. Now, imagine being trapped in there for ten days—the average stay in a community fallout shelter. Even in the spirit of Halloween, that’s a scary thought.

Archana Aithal Rose

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Archana Aithal Rose

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Archana Aithal Rose

Archana Aithal Rose’s articles have appeared in The Times of India, CNNGo, Condé Nast Traveler and Vogue, covering such broad range of topics as fashion, art, travel, culture, celebrities, architecture and technology. In addition to writing, Archana's also known for her mad photography and cooking skills.

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