In an age of al-Qaida, sleeper cells and the threat of nuclear terrorism, Huntsville is dusting off its Cold War manual to create the nation's most ambitious fallout-shelter plan, featuring an abandoned mine big enough for 20,000 people to take cover underground.
Others would hunker down in college dorms, churches, libraries and research halls that planners hope will bring the community's shelter capacity to 300,000, or space for every man, woman and child in Huntsville and the surrounding county.
Emergency planners in Huntsville — an out-of-the-way city best known as the home of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center — say the idea makes sense because radioactive fallout could be scattered for hundreds of miles if terrorists detonated a nuclear bomb.
"If Huntsville is in the blast zone, there's not much we can do. But if it's just fallout ... shelters would absorb 90 percent of the radiation," said longtime emergency management planner Kirk Paradise, whose Cold War expertise with fallout shelters led local leaders to renew Huntsville's program.
Huntsville's project, developed using $70,000 from a Homeland Security grant, goes against the grain because the United States essentially scrapped its national plan for fallout shelters after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Congress cut off funding and the government published its last list of approved shelters at the end of 1992.
After Sept. 11, Homeland Security created a metropolitan protection program that includes nuclear-attack preparation and mass shelters. But no other city has taken the idea as far as Huntsville has, officials said.
Many cities advise residents to stay at home and seal up a room with plastic and duct tape during a biological, chemical or nuclear attack. Huntsville does too, in certain cases.
Local officials agree the "shelter-in-place" method would be best for a "dirty bomb" that scattered nuclear contamination through conventional explosives. But they say full-fledged shelters would be needed to protect from the fallout of a nuclear bomb.
Program leaders recently briefed members of Congress, including Rep. Charlie Dent, R-Pa., who called the shelter plan an example of the "all-hazards" approach needed for emergency preparedness.
"Al-Qaida, we know, is interested in a nuclear capability. It's our nation's fear that a nuclear weapon could get into terrorists' hands," Dent said.
As fallout shelters go, the Three Caves Quarry just outside downtown offers the kind of protection that would make Dr. Strangelove proud, with space for an arena-size crowd of some 20,000 people.
Last mined in the early '50s, the limestone quarry is dug 300 yards into the side of the mountain, with ceilings as high as 60 feet and 10 acres of floor space covered with jagged rocks. Jet-black in places with a year-round temperature of about 60 degrees, it has a colony of bats living in its highest reaches and baby stalactites hanging from the ceiling.
"It would be a little trying, but it's better than the alternative," said Andy Prewett, a manager with The Land Trust of Huntsville and North Alabama, a nonprofit preservation group that owns the mine and is making it available for free.
Protection for hundreds of thousandsIn all, the Huntsville-Madison County Emergency Management Agency has identified 105 places that can be used as fallout shelters for about 210,000 people. They are still looking for about 50 more shelters that would hold an additional 100,000 people.
While officials have yet to launch a campaign to inform people of the shelters, a local access TV channel showed a video about the program, which also is explained on a county Web site.
If a bomb went off tomorrow, Paradise said, officials would tell people where to find shelter through emergency alerts on TV and radio stations. "We're pretty much ready to go because we have a list of shelters," he said.
Most of the shelters would offer more comfort than the abandoned mine, such as buildings at the University of Alabama in Huntsville that would house 37,643. A single research hall could hold more than 8,100.
Homeland Security spokeswoman Alexandra Kirin said of Huntsville's wide-ranging plan: "We're not aware of any other cities that are doing that."
Not stocked with supplies
Plans call for staying inside for as long as two weeks after a bomb blast, though shelters might be needed for only a few hours in a less dire emergency.
Unlike the fallout shelters set up during the Cold War, the new ones will not be stocked with water, food or other supplies. For survivors of a nuclear attack, it would be strictly "BYOE"— bring your own everything. Just throw down a sleeping bag on the courthouse floor— or move some of the rocks on the mine floor — and make yourself at home.
"We do not guarantee them comfort, just protection," said Paradise, who is coordinating the shelter plans for the local emergency management agency.
Convenience store owner Tandi Prince said she cannot imagine living in the cavern after a bombing.
"That would probably not be very fun," she said.