Two and a half stories underground at First Congregational Church in Kalamazoo, in a room filled with the din of air handlers, Pastor Nathan Dannison points into a recess in the wall.
“On the shelf up here you can still see some resources and materials from the Office of Civil Defense. Those are water canisters that store fresh drinking water,” he says.
That’s because, while it now serves as utility space, fifty years ago this room was intended to shelter people from the fallout of a nuclear attack.
“There’s not a lot of room for other people to stand, though, if there were an emergency,” says WMUK listener Sarah Schneider Koning.
Growing up, Sarah says, she used to see signs for fallout shelters.
“And now you don’t see them as much and with current political things happening, it’s always kind of a thought, like, what would we do, how would we prepare if something were to happen?"
Kalamazoo used to have a plan for sheltering from nuclear fallout. In 1972 the Kalamazoo Gazette published a list of shelters. Some 261 gathering points together had room for most, though not all of the county’s population. Many were downtown, like First Congregational Church.
City of Kalamazoo Historic Preservation Coordinator Sharon Ferraro says the city had long banned building with wood in the downtown because of the risk of fire.
“So the downtown was the natural place where you were going to find buildings made of masonry,” she says.
Masonry that would protect from radiation better than lighter materials. Ferraro says the Civil Defense planners wanted to make the most of existing buildings, such as school and libraries.
“Plus the fact that when the alert came, the question was, how much time would you have?”
But not everyone would have gone to a public shelter. Ferraro says some people built their own.
“I’d be willing to bet that most people that have an unexplained heavy-duty room in the basement might not even realize that that’s what they’ve got.”
At a house in the Vine neighborhood, Todd Urness and I walk through the basement to a low doorway in the wall. A few more steps down a narrow cement hallway and we turn into a cubbyhole.
It’s got cement walls and a steel roof.
“There’s a triple bunk and a small hole in the middle in the floor and there’s a bunch of old booze in here,” Urness adds.
Urness says the Latvian family that built the house in the 1950s believed that Russia would not hesitate to use nuclear weapons.
“People ask us if we ever hang out down here, and it’s just kind of creepy sort of,” he says. But eventually they did start showing it to friends.
Not far away, in Westnedge Hill, Jake and Ashtyn Hunter also live in a house with a bomb shelter. It’s the same idea – a concrete room off the basement – but on a grander scale. The room’s got a water tank, a small cast-iron type stove and a wheel-shaped device probably involved in air circulation.
Ashtyn says they were living out of state before they bought the house, so they sent friends to take a look.
“And we were FaceTiming with them and they were coming downstairs to check out the basement and they were like ‘oh, what’s this little door?’ and they push it open and it’s like this whole lair, like ‘what’s this?’ And we lost the connection because there’s no service in here,” she says.
Ashtyn says the shelter makes a great feature for a Halloween party.
“We had probably 10 people in there at some point just because it’s got the spook factor and so everyone was so curious about it.”
But she wonders if it would really protect anyone from fallout.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency does have basements on its list of possibly worthy shelters. But it recommends looking for a shelter several stories underground if you’re near a target.
Kalamazoo County Sheriff Rick Fuller says his office’s list of shelters has fallen out of date. Fuller says FEMA has the most current plans on nuclear events. But FEMA’s website says that when it comes to shelters, you should check with your local officials – or look around for shelters on your own.
As the US and North Korea trade threats over nukes, Sarah says it’s understandable that people would worry at least a little.
“I made a little post on Facebook the other day that I was doing this, and a lot of people were like ‘yeah, where are the shelters, what do we do? So I think a lot of people are not sure what they’re supposed to do.”