During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union faced off in a tense nuclear arms race. It was a terrifying time for the world’s citizens, who were unsure if the two countries were about to engage in a devastating war that could have destroyed the planet.

In New York City, in order to protect as many as 11.7 million civilians from a potential nuclear blast, there were tens of thousands of fallout shelters built throughout the boroughs. After the Cold War ended, most of the shelters were turned into basement storage spaces.

Regardless of their use now, they’re still a haunting reminder of what could have happened just a few decades ago.

The threat of a nuclear annihilation was constantly on everyone’s mind during the Cold War. As the tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States continued to escalate, fears of an attack gripped each nation. In preparation of a nuclear war, New York City, the most populated city in America, had thousands of fallout shelters built to protect residents in the event of an attack. 

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Many of the ominous yellow and white fallout shelter signs are still attached to the buildings where they were built. These signs once represented strongholds that were fully stocked with necessary supplies to survive an attack.

Many of the shelters were often constructed in the basements of schools and government buildings. The hideouts were meant to protect civilians from exposure to high levels of radiation and dangerous debris that an atomic bomb would cause. Still, even after the Cold War ended, the shelters remained…

The shelters were meant to house over 11 million New Yorkers scattered throughout all five boroughs. The shelter program was spearheaded by Nelson Rockefeller in 1960. It came with a hefty price tag of $1.5 billion, which is equivalent to more than $12 billion today.

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech to the American people in which he declared: “Nuclear weapons are so destructive and ballistic missiles are so swift, that any substantially increased possibility of their use or any sudden change in their deployment may well be regarded as a definite threat to peace.”

By 1963, the Army Corps of Engineers, the group in charge of building the shelters, had identified over 17 thousand of them in New York City. Each location was specifically chosen based on their perceived ability to block radiation. 

There was no location throughout the city that was spared of a shelter. Even the upscale locations, like the London Terrace apartments in Chelsea, had them. The Army Corps of Engineers couldn’t take any chances; they needed to keep as many people safe as possible.

Even though the power of an atomic bomb is indescribably destructive, the concept behind the shelters had three key elements in order to protect citizens from a nuclear blast: distance, shielding, and time.

Distance was incredibly important because the more space that was put between the radioactive particles that hang in the air and human lungs, the better. An underground area like a basement or cement storage space offered much better protection than the first floor of a building.

Shielding was the second element that was vitally important to protect people from an intense blast. The shelters were built in places that had thick walls, such as concrete or steel, so that as little radiation as possible could creep into the space.

The third element of safety was time. Radiation poses the greatest threat to people within the first two weeks after a nuclear bomb detonates. After the two-week window, the radioactivity declines to about one percent of its initial level.

In case of a fallout, there was a list of precautions that all civilians were expected to take to ensure their safety. Removing clothing, showering immediately, and only touching sensitive areas of the body (eyelids, eyelashes and nose) with a wet cloth were some of them.

Each safe-space was supposed to be stocked with enough food, water, flashlights and medical supplies to last a minimum of 24 hours, which was the amount of time that residents were expected to stay hidden after a blast.

Each shelter was supposed to come equipped with boxes of first-aid kits. Some of the items that were in the boxes were aspirin, toilet paper, tongue depressors, hard candies that would suppress appetites and cracker-like biscuits.

Here is a picture of a bunker that was found in 2006 by several city workers underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. There were dozens of canisters full of government issued first-aid kits, which included a number of survival supplies.

There were also stack of boxes that included medical aid supplies, such as an antibiotic called Dextran. New York City workers also stumbled on a fallout shelter on the Manhattan side of the bridge. It, too, housed some fascinating relics.

This particular safe-room was filled with drums of water, thick blankets, various kinds of medication and over 350,000 packages of high-calorie crackers that were all sealed away in tin canisters. There were also boxes with the words “For Use Only After Enemy Attack” stamped on their sides.

Although many of the shelters were creatively designed and well-intended, many of them suffered from major problems. Some were designed around old sewage pipes where rats would frequently spend their time. The pipes were leaky, and the conditions were unsanitary.

Many of them also didn’t have the first-aid supplies that were promised by the government. In 1966, during a routine inspection of the fallout shelters throughout all five boroughs, New York City’s civil defense director found that many of the shelters were missing the survival kits. It was a very disconcerting problem.

Wealthy residents, however, were able to build luxurious strongholds that included insane amenities. One Texas builder showcased his 5,600-square-foot shelter at the 1964 World Fair in Flushing Meadow Park in Queens, New York. It included air conditioning and a 20-inch steel shell surrounding it.

New York’s then-governor, Nelson Rockefeller, had a personal fallout shelter built in Albany, New York, which set him back $3.5 million. He also installed shelters at the locations of his other properties in  Maine, Westchester County, and Mahattan’s Fifth Avenue.

By the 1970s, funding for the shelter program startled to dwindle, and many of the urban city bunkers lost their popularity due to smaller suburban backyard bunkers that many homeowners had installed on their land. Many of the city’s shelters were then converted back into storage spaces.

Even though New York City had such a high number of shelters, many experts today believe an atomic blast is so strong that no matter where you were located, be it above ground or in a cement-encased room, the chances of survival were basically zero.

Dr. Jeffrey Kroessler, an expert on physical development and urban policy in New York City, had this to say about surviving a blast: “American military and civilian investigators saw what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so no one was unaware of the scale of destruction. No one could believe that a room in the cellar of an apartment building would provide any real safety.”

Even though many of the shelters are no longer used, they still give residents of New York City some peace of mind that in the event of a nuclear war, there are places to retreat to that can offer some sort of protection from the radiation. Hopefully, it never gets to that point.

The threat of nuclear war is terrifying. Hopefully, citizens of New York City will never have to worry about revisiting these shelters anytime soon… Or ever.

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