Gimme Subterranean Shelter

When it comes to home security, you can't beat a house designed to withstand an atom bomb.

"The place was spectacular," Hunter recalls. "I would work at my desk at night downstairs, then I would spend the days upstairs. The tourist buses would stop by and look in as far as they could, but they could only see what was on top. There was a huge L-shaped fish pond with a little waterfall at one end. There was a grape arbor, and ornamental lights that fit into the architecture so beautifully."

While William Kent was laying out $20,000 for his deluxe bunker, other Miamians were building theirs on the cheap. Even as they did so, local newspapers ran headlines such as "If The Bomb Hits, Where Will You Run?" and "Grand Jury's Report: Dade Civil Defense Inadequate." Throughout the summer of 1961, the Miami Herald serialized a book by military alarmist Alexander P. de Seversky, which claimed Russia was three times mightier than the U.S.

"The county is naked to nuclear attack," Sheriff Thomas Kelly warned. "We don't care what kind of shelter the public builds, as long as it is properly constructed and is as much underground as possible." W.I. Wellons, Dade's civil defense superintendent, weighed in with the sheriff: "We firmly believe that shelters offer the best chance for survival."

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On August 9, 1961, a Miami cop named Joe Ventura became the first homeowner to receive a permit for a private fallout shelter. By September, 33 more shelters were under construction. Nineteen bomb-shelter construction companies sprang up. One of them projected an eventual need for 50,000 family fallout shelters in Dade alone, and planned to open "dealerships" across the country. Local banks began making low-interest loans for shelters, and the county decided that the shelters would be assessed and taxed just like any other home addition.

After five months, the bottom fell out of the market. Government civil defense policy began to favor large public bomb shelters rather than small private ones. A federal study named 55 sites in Miami for use as communal shelters, and local officials began stocking them with food and water. They included the Dade County Jail, the Everglades Hotel, and the Virginia Key sewage treatment plant.

A disgusted Harold Jay, manager of U.S. Bomb Shelters, Inc., had this to say: "First it was shelters, now it's the Twist. I think the whole thing was a fad. We only built 32 in Dade County in a year's time. From now on, we will bid on government contracts for communal shelters." The Miami News noted that "in the wake of their departure, the builders left a not altogether enviable record. There were instances of fraud, deceit, and building code violations."

Today the entrance to Miami's first fallout shelter stands in the middle of a dog pen at 3100 NW 95th Terr. Lillie Corrieri, age 31, owns the dogs. She's trying to sell the house. "It's been a real liability," she says of the underground bunker. "People come to look at the house and they see this thing sticking out of the back yard. They think it's something the government built."

What's the shelter like on the inside? "I don't know," Corrieri says. "My mom went down there when she bought the house in 1967. It hasn't been opened since."

Corrieri bites her nails as a brawny photographer pulls open a trap door the size of a coffin lid. A rusty steel ladder disappears down a concrete shaft. At the bottom of the shaft, an old green bottle floats in a foot of water.

A corridor leads to a twelve-by-fourteen-foot room. It contains a lawn chair, a plastic Jesus statuette, and approximately 900 cockroaches. Someone has written 1961 in the cement.

"My mom says the guy who built it was a real fanatic weirdo," Corrieri notes. "He had cans of food down there, and an oxygen tank." The five-foot-tall tank is still there, along with a gas mask.

Not far across town, at 685 NE 130th St., a fireman named Jim Reilly once spent two weeks underground with his wife and four children to test the shelter he built with his own hands.

Reilly's gone now, and the current owner, a Haitian immigrant, at first denies there's anything unusual behind his house: "Bomb shelter? What bomb shelter?"

Twenty minutes later he leads a pair of visitors around back. He swings open the counterweighted lid. The shelter smells hot and dank, and the entry ladder has rusted away. "I think whoever built this thing was crazy," the homeowner snorts. "I don't want it here, but it's here. It's like a ghost in my back yard."

One day soon, even the snazziest of Miami's bomb shelters may be dark and empty, given back to the ghosts of the Cold War until new tenants can be found. Timothy Ivory's lease ran out on August 31, and he's not sure he'll renew. He loves his Coconut Grove bunker, but his wife doesn't.

"Her initial reaction was, 'Yeah, this is great!'" Ivory recalls. "Then she got concerned. She's studying acupuncture, and she's very aware of lung-liver channels and how breathing is affected by damp and cold. She kept saying, 'There's no oxygen!' I would say, 'What do you mean there's no oxygen? Of course there's oxygen. We just need one of those dehumidifiers.'"

She moved out of the underground digs and into a proper house near the airport. Bomb shelter life isn't for everyone.

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