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Fallout Failure? Investigating Michigan’s Forgotten Fallout Shelters

In the wake of a false missile alert that panicked many in Hawaii, the Newschannel 3 I-Team is taking a closer look at Michigan’s emergency preparedness system - and visiting fallout shelters once deemed to be the best places to survive a nuclear attack. (WWMT/Denise Schermerhorn)

On the heels of a missile alert system that was accidentally sent to hundreds of thousands of people in Hawaii, Newschannel 3 took a rare look inside some of West Michigan’s nuclear fallout shelters built in the 1950s and 1960s to see if the shelters could still sustain life in the event of the unthinkable.

The I-Team is also learned that at one point, Kalamazoo had as many as 260 government approved nuclear fallout shelters.

“In Kalamazoo, mostly in the city, the public ones have really sort of gone by the wayside,” Kalamazoo County Sheriff Richard Fuller said. “Right now they would mostly serve as a very temporary location for somebody during an emergency.”

Underneath the First Congregational Church in Kalamazoo, the I-Team was given rare access to what was once deemed a nuclear fallout shelter.

According to Rev. Sarah Schmidt-Lee, because so much equipment and other items has been stored in the fallout shelter over the years, it’s far from being an adequate fallout shelter for more than a few people. She pointed to many of the fallout supplies and barrels provided by the Office of Civil Defense (now FEMA) back in the early 1960s.

“It’s a sobering reminder of how fearful we’ve been as a society in recent memory,” she said.

Many of the barrels appear to be empty, but the labels on the outside are still clearly visible.

“To reuse as a commode,” reads one of the instructions on the barrels. “Toilet paper, can opener, commode liner, hand cleaner, gloves,” reads text on another barrel.

Michigan State Police used to be tasked with the duty of keeping track of all the nuclear fallout shelters until the mid-90s

Listings of those shelters were compiled in yearly MSP Emergency Operations Planning reports.

Deputy Director of Emergency Management and Homeland Security Chris Kelenske says a lack of federal funding, among other things, led MSP to stop doing the yearly inventory of the shelters.

“It just wasn’t something that was needed especially after the Cold War ended,” Kelenske said.

After the I-Team issued Freedom of Information Act Requests for a copy of the 1983 Emergency Operations Planning Report that would have contained lists of the existing shelters, MSP indicated that particular public record no longer existed.

That hasn’t stopped online crowdsourcing efforts to identify and map the locations of Michigan’s fallout shelters.

That map led the I-Team to Moccasin Elementary School in Buchanan, where a “fallout shelter” sign is still prominently displayed at the front of the school.

Unlike the fallout shelter at the First Congregational Church in Kalamazoo, however, the underground shelter at Moccasin is nearly empty, with only a few broken school desks and shelves.

Buchanan Schools Superintendent Timothy Donahue said he is not aware if the shelter is still usable, nor is he aware of any special protocol in terms of how to use the shelter.

“It’s a dark, dank place that I don’t think anybody would want to voluntarily spend any time in,” he said. “Even in an emergency, it would be relatively uncomfortable.”

Another marker on the crowdsourced map indicated the Sturgis Fire Department as a location where nuclear fallout shelter exists.

However, Sturgis Deputy Fire Chief Andy Strudwick said the basement fallout shelter has been phased out.

“Our basement fallout shelter was done away with years ago when we had to add support beams to hold the heavier fire trucks,” he wrote in an email to Newschannel 3.

Although many locations once identified as public fallout shelters are no longer used for that purpose, Kelenske says they should not be ruled out in a worst case scenario, the same goes for other basements that may appear to be less than ideal.

“If I had my choice of being outside during a nuclear detonation or in some place that I may not want to be during a nuclear detonation, I’m going to opt to go into a dark, wet basement, versus out on the street,” he said.

As for the missile alert message sent by mistake in Hawaii, Kelenske points out that Michigan does not have such an alert for missile attacks. He also noted Michigan’s text alert system is completely different from that of Hawaii’s – and he said it has an added layer of security.

“First we need the permission to come from the Governor, Lt. Governor, or the Director of the State Police to provide me with that authorization to send a message,” he said.

For more information on nuclear fallout preparedness, visit FEMA’s website here.

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