Civil Defense: Boom to Bust

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"My best salesmen are named Khrushchev and Kennedy," Chicago's Frank F. Norton, president of the National Shelter Association, cried last fall. With Khrushchev threatening war over Berlin, and Kennedy encouraging U.S. families to build home shelters, Norton's own Atomic Shelter Corp. and scores of other companies were swamped with orders to build a haven in the basement or bury one in the backyard. But last week Norton, who has lost $100,000 and estimates that over 600 firms have failed, had changed his tune. Grieved he: "The market is dead—the manufacturers have had it."

What killed home shelters was the lull in the cold war plus the Kennedy Administration's decision to stress large-scale, community shelters over backyard bunkers. Says Ray Toland Sr., a Los Angeles shelter maker who failed: "It's been a real loused-up deal. All this blah-blah-blah about a $30 shelter or a $300 shelter, and about private and community shelters. People got so confused they didn't know what was right—and they still don't." In Oklahoma City, the number of inquiries about shelters received monthly by one company has dropped from 40 to 1. Last fall Chicago's Wonder Building Corp., headed by Leo Hoegh, former director of the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization, was selling 200 fallout shelters a week. Last week Hoegh sold fewer than ten. Says Hoegh, who has 3,000 shelters crated in storage: "I am bleeding rather profusely."

Many shelter manufacturers have moved into other lines of production. After switching from swimming pools to shelters, one firm in Boston is back to swimming pools again. Once burned by the shelter boom-to-bust, the manufacturers are twice wary. Says Norton: "If we had another international crisis, I don't know of a manufacturer who would make a move of his own until we got an explicit national plan endorsing home shelters."