Descending into a chilly basement with government-issue green walls, the station's chief engineer, Jerry Dowd, shows off a photo of the room from 1963, when the shelter was built. "As you can tell, not a lot has ... enemy missile anymore, but Mother ...
WBT radio's bomb shelter in Charlotte, N.C., part of a government-funded emergency communications network, as it looked in 1963.
Courtesy of Jerry Dowd
There's an underground bunker at a radio station in Charlotte,
N.C., where time has stopped. Built decades ago to provide safety and
vital communications in the event of a nuclear attack, it's now a
perfectly preserved relic of Cold War fear that's gained new relevance.
secret bunker is part of the office lore that old-timers at WBT Radio
whisper to the newbies. That's how radio host Mike Collins learned of it
back in the 1980s.
"I remember being amazed that it would
really exist," Collins says, laughing. "Because I thought, you know, in
the event of a nuclear attack, we wouldn't be here to broadcast!" A Piece Of The Early Emergency Broadcast System
There was a
certain naivete in 1962, when schoolchildren were learning to duck
under their desks in atomic bomb drills and President John F. Kennedy
was taking to the airwaves with dire warnings of Soviet missiles in
Cuba, "capable of striking Washington, D.C., the Panama Canal, Cape
Canaveral, Mexico City, or any other city in the southeastern part of
the United States."
WBT chief engineer Jerry Dowd sits at the shelter's console. All of the bunker's communications equipment is still functional.
The Cuban missile crisis
prompted Kennedy to launch the Emergency Broadcast System in 1963 and
outfit radio stations all over the country — including WBT — with
doomsday bunkers that could bring his voice to the American people
during a national crisis.
Descending into a chilly basement
with government-issue green walls, the station's chief engineer, Jerry
Dowd, shows off a photo of the room from 1963, when the shelter was
"As you can tell, not a lot has changed," he says. "The clock stopped."
from the clock, stuck at 6:00, everything still works. Emergency
supplies to keep some poor engineer alive and broadcasting for up to 60
days are still here, too.
"We have a leftover can of survival crackers that were date-coded from April 1963," Dowd says. "We had ... drinking water."
And, holding up something like a cardboard bucket with a hole in the top, he shows off the all-important "sanitation kit."
"What you did is you took the lid off," he says, chuckling. "It's a porta potty."
FEMA has constructed new buildings known as
Primary Entry Point Stations, like this one in Fresno, Calif., to
support the nation's Emergency Alert System.
There are giant turntables here, poised to broadcast the most
natural of things for the end of times: "A church program, I believe,
that we had recorded in 1955," Dowd explains, lifting a dusty vinyl
record up off the spindle. A Lesson From Hurricane Katrina
to say, the bunker has never been needed. As the Cold War ended, dozens
of them across the country collected dust until the mid-1990s, when the
national Emergency Alert System was expanded and a new wave of radio
stations got emergency shelters designed to withstand an enemy attack.
Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf of Mexico. While other radio and TV
stations went silent, WWL in New Orleans went into its bunker.
served as kind of a staple in the community and a source of information
for citizens when a number of the other broadcast facilities were off
the air," says Antwane Johnson, who heads the emergency public alerts
and warnings program for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Katrina, Johnson says, FEMA realized the main reason for these doomsday
bunkers was probably not an enemy missile anymore, but Mother Nature.
Millions of federal dollars have since built a network of nearly 80
high-tech emergency shelters, known as Primary Entry Point Stations,
to withstand hurricanes, tornadoes, solar flares — even a freak
electromagnetic pulse that could cripple the nation's power grid.
FEMA keeps the technical details under wraps, but Dowd leads me
outside to see WBT's new emergency shelter. It's actually made up of two
aboveground sheds fortified by some kind of vacuum seal and very heavy
"Now, for giggles and grins, turn your cellphone on and see if you can get any signal," Dowd urges.
signal. The point is clear: A 21st century doomsday calls for lots more
than dusty turntables and survival crackers in a cinder block basement.