Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Miami's 1960s bomb shelter craze

A utilitarian, ready-made steel bomb shelter complete with 
installation and food supplies is displayed for sale. 
September 22, 1961.

Miami News, Nov. 9, 1961.

All ads from the Miami News, Sept. 24, 1961.
(Click here to enlarge)

A Sept. 24, 1961 Miami News story reported that 19 Dade County companies manufactured a variety of fallout shelters priced from $1195 to $2495.


by CARLOS HARRISON, Herald Staff Writer

October 19, 1987

Is it OK to kill your neighbors if they try crawling into your backyard fallout shelter?

Five Broward ministers said yes.

Welcome to the '60s, when nuclear nervousness and a booming bomb shelter craze gave birth to this bizarre moral question that made headlines in 1961.

Everyone was building one, or should have been, according to the experts of the day.

South Florida's bomb shelter boom began with the building of the Berlin Wall. The boom busted, then bloomed again briefly when the Cuban Missile Crisis brought four-story-high, warhead- tipped Nike-Hercules rockets to South Florida. The warheads are gone, but the shelters remain, for the most part unused or converted.

The governor has a shelter under the porch of his Tallahassee mansion that still holds the original radio equipment, K-rations and 500 gallons of distilled water. It also holds unused household overflow, a copying machine, stacks of stationery and weapons.

There's one underneath North Miami City Hall, where the parks and recreation department has its offices.

Jack and Linda Chorost built one out of coral and concrete, with an inch-thick steel door, at their home on Northwest Ninth Court. "At first some people thought we were kooks," she said in August 1961.

The shelter now serves as an apartment for the current owner's 6-year-old collie-shepherd mix named Frisky.

"I took the door off and made it into my dog's apartment," said owner Alma Brown. "I'll tell you the truth, the way I feel, with this atomic bomb stuff, it's gonna kill you anyway. Who's gonna be left anyhow?"

William Stewart built a shelter on Northeast 130th Street that a civil defense director called one of the best in the area. The shelter has 9-inch-thick concrete inner and outer walls separated by two feet of packed earth, a ventilation system and a zig-zagging entryway that Stewart, a sailor, designed himself using common sense and what he called "dead reckoning."

"If you reckon wrong, you're dead," he said.

Now the air-conditioned home addition is a storeroom and workshop in which the Stewarts hide during hurricanes and tornado warnings. As for its original purpose, Evelyn Stewart said, "I'm not worrying about that, because it's never going to happen. Man will never use the atomic bomb because one will lead to the use of all and man will never do that."

In November 1961, The Miami Herald followed six members of the Reilly family of North Miami as they spent six days and five nights in the back yard, underground, 12-foot-by-10-foot shelter that Jim Reilly built.

The "Fallout Family," as they were called in headlines, used a telephone daily to read notes and send out photos of the experience.

"I'll miss the dance," said Dianne Reilly, then 16. "But I don't mind."

In the shelter she entertained Pat, 3, and Michael, 4, by teaching them the twist and the cha-cha.

Mary "Dusty" Reilly, mother of the nuclear family, warmed canned tuna on the Sterno stove and watched as laundry refused to dry in the heat and humidity of the shelter.

"I am not sorry that we did it," she said from her home in Rhode Island last week. "At the time it was something for us to do."

Then she was quoted as saying the shelter was "for the kids -- like an insurance policy we hope we'll never need."

The shelter did turn out to be for the kids. They painted the inside black, after the beds rotted away.

"We had the best clubhouse in the neighborhood," said Michael Reilly, now 30.

The walls have cracked and the shelter is "full of water and bugs," Michael Reilly said. "We haven't been down there in seven or eight years."

Today, Mary Reilly says, "Truthfully, no, I don't think you could really survive down there."

But in 1961, no less an authority than anthropologist Margaret Mead suggested that newlyweds should be given free honeymoons in fallout shelters. If the bomb was dropped, we stood a chance of preserving at least some of the race, she reasoned.

A Miami shelter builder seized on the idea for a promotion. He offered a free wedding and honeymoon to any couple who would spend two weeks in an underground shelter next to Westchester Shopping Center at Southwest 87th Avenue and Coral Way.

Gerald and Joan Klein, a cement plant worker and soda fountain clerk who wanted to get married but couldn't afford a wedding, took him up on it.

"It was a way to have the big wedding we wanted right away," said Joan Klein, now a Cutler Ridge restaurateur.

They ate K-rations, slept and sweat for two weeks. Gerald lost 20 pounds, grew a beard and got a rash. Nine months after they emerged, nearly to the day, Gerald Jr. was born.


  1. When we lived across the street from Edison Elementary in 1959, I remember the neighbors put in a bomb shelter in their back yard. I've driven by the old neighborhood but it doesn't seem to be there anymore.


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