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A LOOK BACK: The March Wind

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By Derek M. Otto

As we try to figure out if March is going to come in like a lion or lamb, we have to look back to not so long ago when we were prepared for a different kind of wind: nuclear fallout.   

It was very surprising that the nuclear clock— symbolic clock that reflects nuclear security— was recently moved from two to twelve.  Twelve is a nuclear attack.  The last time it was moved off five, a relatively safe number, was in 1995 when it was moved to four.  With recent political rhetoric reflecting an increase in the United States nuclear arsenal and unknown proliferation across the globe. it makes me wonder if we should return to that time…

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States government decided that a mobilization of its citizenry was needed for its own defense. It was the first time that a foreign power attacked the United States.  In most cases, the fear was that Germany or Japan would raid the United States with incendiary bombs intended to start massive fires. This included having wardens in cities and villages that would educate and maintain civil defense.   

Air siren drills, blackouts and even the Springville Committee on Civil Defense Committee posted signs on knowing how to put out incendiary bombs. “Anyone can control an incendiary bomb, don’t fear them, respect them, and keep cool.”  It was a scary time for Springville residents.

The dropping of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 ended the war. As Springville residents celebrated the end of World War II, they had no clue of the new era that was beginning.

By the early 1950s, the Soviet Union and The United States were in a great arms race.  With the invention of the ICBM, a nuclear attack by a foreign power was possible.  The Office of Civil Defense was no longer concerned with incendiary bombs, but with the potential of a nuclear strike at any of our military bases or major cities.

Manuals on how to make you own bomb shelter circulated in every community. The Association of Masonry and Concrete Suppliers produced educational videos on how to convert your basement into a shelter. The Department of Defense began producing educational movies on how to stock shelters with additional supplies than one provided by the Office of Civil Defense or OCD.  The OCD would supply a Geiger counter for radiation monitoring, water, food, basic first aid and some sanitary supplies to shelters. The community would have to supply diapers, chairs, cots, toys games, tools, and even brooms.

Though Springville was never deemed a major target for a direct hit, special interest in Springville was in the preparation to the exposure of fallout.  Fallout was the radioactive dust produced when an atomic bomb went off.  Private shelters were built here. The best known is the one built by John and Lorraine Ellis outside of the Oasis Bed and Breakfast.

Public shelters were determined.  At the peak of shelter hysteria, Charles Cranston, Sr., Town Supervisor, posted in the October 12, 1961 local newspaper that the Real Property Tax law was amended to allow for the exemption of tax assessment and special levies on properties that have added or improved their property for the sake of providing a fallout shelter. The max of the exemption was $100 per occupant of the shelter.

In some ways, this also increased the hysteria; a week later, the newspaper reported that Mr. Gerrity of the west end created $2,000 in damages to his property and his diner when the fallout shelter he was digging collapsed.  The foundations of the diner and his property next door also collapsed.

Even further, the OCD began to be concerned that neighbors would turn against neighbors during an attack.  By the end of 1961, the Federal Government decided that public shelters were necessary and should be easily identified.  The classic black and yellow triangle sign was introduced.  Buildings with shelters that had these signs were determined to have a capacity of at least 50 occupants, food, water and basic OCD supplies.  The exposure to radiation was also set to be at least 1/40th of the outside radiation.

Mainly brick and mortar buildings or concrete structure were determined safe for fallout shelters. Springville had many buildings that had the classic black and yellow signage, and some signs still exist today: Witter-Davis Furniture, The Love Inc. Building, Springville Village Office, St. Al’s, Salem Lutheran, Springville Elementary, St. Paul’s Episcopal, the old Springville Labs, Robinson Knife, Winsmith, Griffith Institute and Bertrand Chaffee Hospital were all designated fallout shelters.

When an addition was added to the high school in 1964 and 1965, an actual bomb shelter was built under the auditorium. The shelter was stocked with bunk beds, water, food and necessities. By 1967, it was becoming evident that the exposure to radiation and fallout wasn’t as serious as the hysteria it brought about. The designation of fallout shelters slowed. Global political changes and nuclear bans and treaties brought an end to the OCD in 1979.   It was replaced with FEMA, Federal Emergency Management Agency.

At one point, we were naive to what could happen and were more afraid in trying to be prepared.  In the 21st century, we are less naive and have had to learn hope to prepare for more than just an atomic attack. As for preparation for an emergency today, look for the survival preparation classes hosted by the American Red Cross.

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