Environment, Education, Energy: Policy to People

From Nuclear Fallout To Tornadoes, A Shifting View of Public Shelter Policy in Oklahoma

A '50s-era map from Oklahoma's Civil Defense agency shows how government officials were studying how shelters could be used to protect the public from the threat of atomic weapons.

Oklahoma State Government Archives

A '50s-era map from Oklahoma's Civil Defense agency shows how government officials were studying how shelters could be used to protect the public from the threat of atomic weapons.

In the 1960s, survey teams of architects and engineers started hunting across Oklahoma for places to hunker down.

They found basements and tunnels, underground parking garages and well-built structures in municipal and private buildings.

At the time, Oklahoma’s big worry was an attack from Soviet Russia. That threat never materialized, but the state is targeted by tornadoes every year. And public shelter spaces are disappearing from the map.

‘Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow’

In 1964, then-Governor Henry Bellmon said that Oklahoma had more than a half million licensed fallout shelters, and bragged that its public shelter program outpaced other those in other states.

“I would like to congratulate the Civil Defense Agency in the excellent progress made in preparing Oklahoma for a national disaster I hope will never come,” he told The Daily Oklahoman in July 1964.

By that year, more than 600,000 shelters — in structures like banks, hotels, libraries, post offices, schools and hospitals — were marked with placards emblazoned with that familiar logo: three yellow triangles in a black circle. The fallout shelter signs let the public know where they could go during a nuclear strike.

Oklahoma’s Civil Defense agency loaned out copies “Protection Factor 100″ and other films to local emergency management officials to encourage them to help survey public and private buildings for community shelter space.


But it’s getting hard for Oklahomans to find public shelter space. Statewide, community shelters are being closed. Norman is shuttering its four community shelters on July 1, the University of Oklahoma Police Department warns in a storm preparedness document.

Authorities in Edmond used to open school doors for citizens seeking public refuge, but not anymore, The Oklahoman’s Bryan Dean reports.

The Reed Center in Midwest City used to be a public shelter, but city officials decided to close all three of its community shelters in 2012. The change went into effect on Jan. 1, 2013.  If you look closely, you can see the sign used to point out the entrance to the public shelter.

Joe Wertz / StateImpact Oklahoma

The Reed Center in Midwest City used to be a public shelter, but city officials voted to close all three of its community shelters in 2012. The change went into effect on Jan. 1, 2013. If you look closely, you can see the sign used to point out the entrance to the public shelter.

Midwest City officials agreed last year to close its three public shelters. One major reason: They were too popular. Overcrowding was a major concern, says the city’s Emergency Management Director Mike Bower.

During one tornado outbreak in 2011, people packed the basement of the city hall building in Midwest City. One woman went to the wrong entrance and found a locked door.

“She actually broke the window — the glass in the door — and reached in and unlocked the door,” Bower says.

Legal liability for public shelter providers isn’t an issue. In 2012, Gov. Mary Fallin signed legislation that protects businesses, individuals and other entities that provide public shelter during tornadoes and other severe weather.

But there are other problems with public shelters, like staffing, Bower says. For local governments to maintain public shelters, they have to be prepared to stage personnel who can open and manage the shelters. In Midwest City, that often meant taking police officers off the street when they were needed most, he says.

Public Fallout

Bower says he received a lot of complaints when Midwest City closed its community shelters. That doesn’t surprise David Monteyne, an architectural historian at the University of Calgary who wrote a book on the U.S. nuclear shelter program.

“Support for a public shelter program was always high,” he says.

So why couldn’t Oklahoma use some of those basements and underground spaces first conceived of as fallout shelters? Many could be used for protection in severe storms, Monteyne says. Bower agrees, but says emergency management authorities don’t want to encourage hitting the road when the sirens sound.

“We think there’s a certain amount of risk when people get in their vehicle, leave their homes, and come to a public shelter,” Bower says.

Forty-eight people were killed by Oklahoma tornadoes in May. Some died on the road as they tried to outmaneuver storms or seek refuge elsewhere, which sparked off a public debate over tornado evacuation.

Moving Target

Today, the state’s disaster philosophy is “shelter in place,” and the state emergency management authority isn’t a proponent of community shelters.

“Very rarely do you have enough lead time to actually leave your home,” Albert Ashwood, director of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management, tells StateImpact.

Local, state and federal officials promote private, individual shelters. But Gov. Fallin and other leaders say they aren’t going to require them. Monteyne says that mindset parallels those of the early days of the nation’s nuclear shelter program.

“In the ’50s they’re always talking about self-help. You should be digging your shelter in your backyard or building it in your basement and so on,” he says.

The nuclear threat never materialized, and the number of Americans that actually built their own bomb shelters was “miniscule,” Monteyne says.

Tornadoes, however, target Oklahoma every year. And scientists say the energy of the storm that devastated Moore on May 20 dwarfed the power of the atomic weapon that leveled Hiroshima.

Those Cold War bomb bunkers and modern day tornado shelters and safe rooms have another thing in common, Monteyne says: They mostly protect people who can afford to build them.

StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership among Oklahoma’s public radio stations and relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.


  • Leticia

    As an Oklahoma resident, I have a couple of questions and concerns about this shift. When tornadoes happen during business hours and people are at work or shopping, I would assume that officials would also encourage “sheltering in place” which means not going home to utilize private shelters. How can they justify not maintaining public shelters for these instances? I am also curious if there are any thoughts by officials or anyone else on neighborhood shelters which don’t require individuals go far from home but can provide safety for numerous families.

    By closing public facilities and by not investing in neighborhood facilities, the state and municipalities are ensuring that low-income families without the means to install private shelters are once again left unprotected. This is especially disheartening in a state with such a large low-income population.

    • Great comments, Leticia. Where in Oklahoma do you live? Just curious! Do you have a shelter — or access to one?

      • Leticia

        We live in Skiatook (north of Tulsa). We do not have a storm shelter but our neighbors do and have told us that we are welcome to use it.

        • Skaitook! Of course! I’m from Bartlesville, so I know there area well!

          You have nice neighbors! What about the rest of the town? Are shelters and safe rooms pretty common out there?

          • Leticia

            Honestly, I do not know if there are any public shelters in Skiatook. Storm shelters are not particularly common in my neighborhood but I do not know about the town in general. My neighborhood is a mixed one. My home was built in 2006 but the homes range from new constructions to the late 1970s.

  • Ann

    Who cleans ups after the pets that are brought in to the shelters that are opened up to the public? Unfortunately it isn’t always the owners.

    Who steps in to stop the attack when a small lady brings two large dogs (that she can barely manage BEFORE the storm frightens them) and the attack smaller dogs or people also taking shelter? That’s a no win situation for everyone.

    How do you get people to leave the building when the weather clears? Not everyone leaves the shelter when the danger has passed – believe it or not!

    How do you keep people from blocking the building entrances? Strange as it seems, they will often park against the doors, or pull onto sidewalks and porticos to protect their cars – giving no thought to how the elderly or those with small children can make it through the parking maze to get to the building!

    • Good questions, Ann! The rules are different in what few remaining community shelters there are. In Midwest City, the rule used to be “no pets.” Unless it was a service animal. The city emergency management director said pets posed a problem. What if someone is allergic? What if the dog gets spooked? What if someone brings nine cats?

    • Robert Mark Campbell

      And are you implying that someone might be temporarily inconvenienced while others are trying to save their lives and the lives of those they love? We couldn’t have that level of compassion not in Oklahoma where we have too many people striving to prove that they’re better than others!

  • Robert Mark Campbell

    In Norman Oklahoma this situation is particularly corrupt. Our economy is booming, and Council cant approve unlimited height unlimited density apartments with wood-frame structure which are the specialty of Richard McKown of Ideal Homes. Steel and concrete reinforced structure’s are not considered because you know, greed. Our city leaders are able to hunker down in City Hall which we call the “Taj Mahal”- but of course, they close that to the public. The fact is Oklahomans have more lead time then ever thanks to our local forecasters. And I agree with the person who posted previously the most active time for tornadoes is when in fact people are at school at work and out shopping. And I can’t believe anyone would get their panties in a bunch over pets! -if you can’t handle being around a pet for 20 minutes something’s wrong with you they are God’s creatures, given to us to care for by God, and we are God-fearing state you always have a civil remedy to take someone to Civil Court, you just don’t be a bigger pain in the ass than the pet, okay? It is a sad state of affairs when our governor, who commands the National Guard, and when we have more tribal casino money than any other state and we cannot put in public in ground storm shelters it is so sad. The city of Norman is coming up on an extension of the Public Safety sales-tax vote and I say without public storm shelters no extension of the Public Safety sales-tax vote which was an extra “Gimme, Gimme” to our fire and safety….who have been return closed our public storm shelters! Norman is in the business of selling cars not protecting the people who drive them!

    • Windyinok

      Good for you. I am going to share this on FB.

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