Left behind: public and private nuclear fallout shelters in the Port City

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - North Korea's latest missile launch shows a major advance in technology and threat that experts say is capable of hitting anywhere in the United States.

Sadly, it's a fear our country has experienced before. During the Cold War Era, fallout shelters were built nationwide, including right here in the Cape Fear area.

"It's an interesting time of paranoia and really believing that this could happen," said Joseph Sheppard, a reference historian in the North Carolina Room at the Downtown Wilmington Library. "At one time, everybody knew what a fallout shelter symbol looked like."

According to library historians, there were at least 34 public shelters located in Wilmington in 1962. Some of those shelters were at the downtown post office, the Battleship North Carolina, and the basement of what was then the Belk Department store.

In 1966 there were 1,752 shelters throughout the state of North Carolina. Also, in 1961 the People's Savings and Loan was the first commercial building designated a public shelter.

During the height of the Cold War, families built their own fallout shelters, some of which still exist today. Sam Simmons lives in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Wilmington and has a bomb shelter in the basement of his 1920s Tudor-style home.

Three feet underground and in his basement, Simmons said the bunker was built in 1960 by Survival Shelters Inc., a company that was once located on Oleander Drive. Simmons says the family spent a little over $3,000.

"They were pretty serious about it, I understand from the neighbors," Simmons said. "It was stocked with food and they planned on — if they had to use it they were ready."

For Simmons, however, the fallout shelter is a showpiece for guests.

"This can hold about 150 bottles of wine," Simmons said. "I've got DVDs down here so you can watch a movie. Of course, I've got nice places upstairs to watch a movie too. It's a fun thing for people to see."

Simmons said there were many other homes around Wilmington with bomb shelters like his, but said most, if not all, were either destroyed or covered up as the fear of a nuclear fallout subsided.

"It does scare me that we might be returning to a time where we need something like that," Simmons said.

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