Fort Worth

Nuclear war in Fort Worth: Are you prepared to deal with the unthinkable?

A 6-person shelter under construction last year for a client in Saudi Arabia.
A 6-person shelter under construction last year for a client in Saudi Arabia.

A year ago, the customers of Rising S Company in East Texas were buying bomb shelters for fears of economic collapse and the uncertainty of a new presidency.

A year later, President Donald Trump’s tweets to North Korea leader Kim Jung Un arguing about who’s got the biggest nuclear button has customers worried about a possible nuclear attack, said Gary Lynch, the general manager of Rising S, which builds bunkers and bomb shelters in Murchison about 115 miles southeast of Fort Worth.

“Most of my customers used to be concerned about the possibility of a lot of things, including economic collapse and civil unrest, but now I’d say 95 percent of the people contacting me are concerned about nuclear events and a possible war with North Korea,” Lynch said.

And that was before Saturday’s false report of a missile headed toward Hawaii, setting off waves of panic in Honolulu and elsewhere.

“We saw the public reacting very admirably in some cases, and in some cases with real fear and panic, not knowing what to do. And we should all know what to do,” Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell told Hawaii News Now.

Talk about nuclear attacks has escalated in recent months and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention planned to conduct a monthly symposium Tuesday dealing with the Public Health Response to Nuclear Detonation.

“Despite the fear surrounding such an event, planning and preparation can lessen deaths and illness,” the CDC said in announcing the meeting. “For instance, most people don’t realize that sheltering in place for at least 24 hours is crucial to saving lives and reducing exposure to radiation. While federal, state, and local agencies will lead the immediate response efforts, public health will play a key role in responding.”

But late Friday, the CDC announced it was changing its topic for the Public Health Grand Rounds and would instead focus on the flu, which is peaking.

Before the nuclear symposium was canceled, local health officials said they were curious to see what the CDC had to say.

“Tarrant County Public Health trains for Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive (CBRNE) scenarios as part of our all-hazards preparedness mission,” said spokesman Kelly Hanes. “We look forward to CDC’s Grand Rounds to learn more.”

‘Fast-fried or deep-roasted’

Historian Alex Wellerstein has created a website that estimates the impact of a nuclear bomb detonating anywhere in the United States. Using a 10 kiloton weapon similar to what North Korea tested in 2013, the website estimates 18,720 casualties with 30,860 injuries if a missile were aimed at downtown Fort Worth or downtown Arlington.

During the Cold War, fear of a nuclear attack was a way of life in Fort Worth with Carswell Air Force Base serving as a Strategic Air Command Base and General Dynamics (now Lockheed) and Bell Helicopter as major defense contractors.

Looking back at the old Civil Defense plans, residents were told where to shelter or where to flee.

In the 1960s, there were private and public fallout shelters, with Civil Defense officials telling residents to keep a two-week supply of food and water.

Bomb pamphlet
Atomic bomb survival brochure from 50 years ago in Fort Worth. Star-Telegram archives

Pamphlets were issued with titles like “Escape From the H-Bomb” that said “THE DUCK AND COVER SCHEME IS NO LONGER SAFE — YOU MUST GET AWAY,” according to the Star-Telegram archives.

Residents were also told that “an estimate of the situation indicates Seventh and Main Street in downtown Fort Worth as a probable target for a nuclear weapon.” The pamphlets told them what to do in the event of an attack, including a map of evacuation routes.

A 1986 Star-Telegram article noted that Fort Worth still had a fallout shelter inspector, John Martin, and 300 active shelters. That article also noted that Arlington had started removing supplies from shelters in the late 1970s.

“It just kind of tapered off as interest was lost,” said Allen resident Eric Green, who has collected Civil Defense materials on his website

“A lot of people think they were special buildings and they really weren’t,” Green said. “They were just regular buildings that had some radiation protection. Most shelters were in basements or the upper floors of buildings. Over time, they just figured if you were in blast areas you were done for.”

Or, as the April 11, 1982 issue of Parade Magazine summed it up: “Civil defense, one authority contends, will only help you choose ‘whether you want to be fast-fried or dry-roasted.’

Sheltering in place

Today’s nuclear response plans in Fort Worth are covered in the city’s All Hazards Emergency Program that deal with everything from natural disasters to hazardous materials to terrorism, said Fort Worth spokeswoman Cindy Vasquez.

“Although a nuclear missile attack is a low probability threat, we would use all aspects of the plan to ensure the safety of our residents,” Vasquez said. “Our first responders take part in hazmat training to include decontamination as well as take part in exercises to practice various aspects of plans.”

Any plan would incorporate the Joint Emergency Operations Center in Fort Worth that also houses both the city and Tarrant County’s emergency operations staff.

“We are constantly in communication with our state and federal partners to make sure we have the latest in threats to increase readiness and can issue warnings accordingly with all the public warning tools we have in place,” Vasquez said.

For Fort Worth residents, the advice is to shelter in place if the unthinkable ever happens

Fort Worth’s tips for personal safety include:

  • To protect yourself, you need to avoid physical contact with radioactive materials and avoid inhalation. Make sure you and your family know where your shelter in place location is at and know the basics of sheltering in place. This includes knowing how to turn off HVAC systems, sealing doors if needed, have a 72-hour Emergency Kit with food and water or needed medications with you in case of a long shelter in place notice, and have a way to receive updated information in your shelter in place location so you know when the warning has been lifted.
  • Have a family communications plan in place should you and your family become separated or have to be re-united at a later time.

‘They have to prepare’

In Arlington, the city’s radiological protection section of the plan was updated and approved by the State of Texas Division of Emergency Management in 2017, said spokeswoman Susan Schrock. Arlington pointed to the website,, for information regarding radiological incidents, including an attack.

Much of the website deals with issues such as a radiation leak at Comanche Peak Nuclear Power Plant near Glen Rose, 50 miles southwest of Fort Worth.

The advice includes placing as much distance as possible from the source of radiation. The recommendations also include sheltering in place with as much thick material between yourself and the outdoor radiation as possible.

Bomb Shelter(14)
Gary Lynch, the general manager of Rising S Company, a small rural factory where bomb shelters are made. About 95 percent of his customers are now purchasing a shelter because of fears of a nuclear attack. Joyce Marshall

At the Rising S company, customers have to ask tough questions about how long they’re willing to ride it out in a shelter, Lynch said.

“I’ve had customers say ‘if it’s not good in three months, I’m going out no matter what,’” Lynch said. “Different areas in different scenarios are going to yield different results. If you’re west of the blast and the prevailing winds are taking the fallout to the east, your time to come out may be a lot sooner than a person in the direct pathway. I tell people to not prepare for anything less than 90 days.”

Such gloomy advice hasn’t hurt business, Lynch said. There’s currently a 10-to-20 week backlog, depending on the size of the shelters. Prices range from $39,500 for an 8 X 12 mini bunker to $8.3 million for “The Aristocrat Bomb Shelter Complex” with enough room for 50 people to sleep comfortably that includes a swimming pool, gym and green house.

“A bomb shelter is a form of insurance that’s no different than auto insurance,” Lynch said. “You insure your life in the event of nuclear war. It’s just an insurance policy. People have to take responsibility. They have to prepare.”

Bill Hanna: 817-390-7698, @fwhanna