SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

A Blast From The Past

Thank goodness Ketchikan never needed its fallout shelters



June 11, 2019
Tuesday AM

(SitNews) Ketchikan, Alaska - A half century ago, Ketchikan - like most of the rest of the country - was gripped in the Cold War between the United States and the USSR.

Although children of the late 1960s were less likely that than their 1950s cohorts to have frequent "duck and cover" exercises in school, there was still concern about handling a nuclear attack, even in out of the way places like Ketchikan.

In July of 1969, the borough and city governments produced - with help from the Alaska Disaster Office - a "Community Fallout Shelter Plan." Most of those plans are long gone, but lifelong Northender Dennis Northrup recently came across a copy of the 1969 plan that his late father Walt had saved for nearly half a century.

jpg Thank goodness Ketchikan never needed its fallout shelters

Ketchikan: Creek Street & Thomas Basin - August 03, 1966
View of the boardwalk of Creek Street and the small boat harbor, Thomas Basin, from a point above Ketchikan. Houses, buildings, and boats visible.
Photo Credit: Steve McCutcheon, McCutcheon Collection,
Courtesy Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center.,

The plan was signed by the first Borough Chairman, Don King and the Ketchikan Mayor at the time, Oral Freeman. The idea behind the plan, according to the pamphlet was educate Ketchikan residents on what to do and where to go in the event of a "nuclear attack."

First it defined "fallout."

"If a nuclear weapon explodes on or near the ground, tons of earth are drawn up into the fireball produced by the explosion. They mix with the radioactive materials produced by the explosion of the nuclear weapon , and eventually fall back on the ground as particles of fallout."

The pamphlet goes on to note that the fallout pattern depends on the prevailing winds and that fallout could come down as far as several hundred miles from the explosion. It could arrive anywhere from several minutes to several hours to several days after the explosion.

jpg Ketchikan Community Fallout Shelter Plan 1969

Photo Courtesy DAVE KIFFER

"You can protect yourself from fallout by getting heavy material (shielding) between yourself and the fallout particles giving off gamma rays. The heavier the construction of a building you may be in, the better protection it gives you."

As a result, most of the identified fallout shelters for Ketchikan, were large concrete buildings like government buildings and apartment buildings. Oddly enough, two of the most solidly constructed buildings in Ketchikan at the time, White Cliff School and Main School are not on the shelter list, even though both those building had the familiar "fallout shelter" signs on them, according to students who attended those schools in the 1960s.

"There are 10 buildings in Ketchikan which provide protection 'radioactive fallout.' They have available space for all inhabitants in the borough. There are approximately 11,256 resident people with shelter space available for 11,526."

The ten buildings listed as fallout shelters for Ketchikan residents were the Marine View and Tongass View apartment buildings in the West End and the KPU Building (city hall), Gilmore Hotel, Tongass Building, Ingersoll Hotel, Deer Mountain Apartments, Mary Frances, Federal Building and the "service building" for the former Ketchikan Hospital, all in the Downtown area.

Residents who lived outside the city limits were instructed to drive to the edge of the city and then walk to the nearest shelter. In city residents were advised to not drive within the city because that would clog up the streets, further delaying the evacuation to the shelters.

At the time, Ketchikan had sirens on many telephone poles in the community.

"The signal itself is a 3 to 5 minute wavering sounds on the sirens, or a series of short blasts on whistles, horns or other devices, repeated as deemed necessary."

The pamphlet noted that since space was limited in the shelters, residents should only bring medicines, small amounts of supplementary canned or dried foods, portable radios, blankets, flashlights, sleeping bags, first aid kids, toiletries and extra clothing.

Things that were not to be brought to the shelters included pets, weapons, alcoholic beverages, foods requiring cooking or refrigeration and heat or flame producing devices except for matches and lighters.

An interesting part of the Ketchikan Community Fallout Shelter plan was something that probably didn't appear in similar other plans across the country, "Boats as Fallout Shelters."

Tongass Trading Company - Shop A Piece of History - Ketchikan, Alaska Tongass Trading Co. Furniture House - Ketchikan, Alaska Alaskan & Proud Grocery & Liquor Stores - Ketchikan, Alaska

"The comparatively large number of boats in the Ketchikan Gateway Borough are provide an excellent supplement to the public fallout shelters. There are sufficient public fallout shelters....but it is possible that unforeseen circumstances such as a fire in a building with a large shelter capacity could reduce the number of shelter spaced available."

In which case, the pamphlet notes that a "boat with a cabin or with an awning or canopy will provide protection comparable to that found in the basement of an ordinary frame house. This is so because, as the radioactive dust settles to the bottom, the water will provide the required mass to reduce the radiation which would reach the occupants of the boat. This will limit the overall exposure of the boat's occupants to the radiation emitted by the fallout particles which accumulate on the boat itself. This contribution would be about one tenth of what could be expected from dust which settled on a solid surface instead of sinking into the water surrounding the boat."

jpg 1969 Boats As Fallout Shelters

Click here or on photo for a larger view.
Photo Courtesy DAVE KIFFER

If a boat was to be used for fallout protection, the pamphlet says it should be in at least five feet of water and no closer than 200 feet from the shoreline. Any visible fallout material should be swept or washed from the boat. The boat should be in motion during any fallout to allow the wind to help remove contamination. People should remain below decks or in the pilot house as much as possible, going outside only to sweep fallout from the decks. And foul weather gear should be used by anyone removing contamination from the decks.

And, despite what you may have seen in all those old newsreels of atomic tests in the South Pacific, a nuclear blast in the air above the water was not expected to cause a significant tsunami, according to the pamphlet. If a nuclear attack were to occur at or near Ketchikan, the pamphlet concludes that people on boats would be able to go ashore within 2 to 3 days because 90- percent of the radiation would have decayed by that point.

Fifty years later, it's hard to tell whether any of the scientific conclusions about fallout were accurate, but they were clearly the best information available at the time.

Fortunately, Ketchikan residents never had to put the Community Fallout Shelter Plan in to use. But there was a reminder of the importance of planning for the unthinkable two years ago when it was announced that North Korea had developed missiles that had the capability of reaching North America, specifically Alaska. It was soon determined that the missiles could potentially reach the US West, which made a surprise attack on Alaska a lot less likely.

Still, there remains a value in knowing where to go in a major emergency and most of the shelters of 1969 remain available if the community needs them.


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Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
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