Some Hawaii residents rattled by the false missile alert are considering doing more than leaving it up to chance that they’ll be able to find shelter should a ballistic missile head their way.
An Oregon bomb shelter company has received about 65 inquiries, and counting, from Hawaii residents since the Jan. 13 false alarm.
Most were for an underground shelter kit, which includes an air-filtration system and steel hatch, American Safe Room sales manager Brian Duvaul said. The company, founded in 2001, has shipped about 40 to 50 air-filtration systems and some blast doors to Hawaii over the years — but never a shelter kit.
The missile alert snafu was a wake-up call for most Hawaii residents who found themselves uninformed and ill-prepared to survive the real thing.
The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency has said a nuclear disaster is highly unlikely, and is not promoting construction of fallout or bomb shelters. Instead, it urges residents to identify existing places where they may find shelter.
An outdated 1985 list of fallout shelters, some of which no longer exist, indicated a shortage on most areas of Oahu.
On Jan. 12, the day before the false alert, former HI-EMA Administrator Vern Miyagi was asked whether he should build a bomb shelter in his backyard. Miyagi, speaking at the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii Military Partnership Conference, responded that he advocates “individual resilience.” But when pressed, Miyagi said: “If a person has the wherewithal to go do that, go do it.”
The cost of shelter
Duvaul estimated the cost for a small underground shelter would start at about $40,000, including $5,000 for shipping to Hawaii. The kit is for an 8.7-by-20-foot interior space, 7.3 feet high, designed for six adults.
American Safe Room’s small kit starts at $16,000, and includes steel trusses, a hatch and a nuclear-biological-chemical air-filtration system. It doesn’t include the needed concrete blocks and concrete, and excavation and building costs that could run roughly $15,000 to $20,000, Duvaul estimated.
“The key is air filtration,” he said. “Even if there’s no bomb shelter, you can keep the fallout out of the soft tissue of your lungs. They’re relatively inexpensive and start at under $1,900, not like $50,000 bomb shelters.”
A building permit is still required, and the review time for a fallout shelter permit application would be the same as a permit for an addition to a house, city Department of Planning and Permitting Deputy Director Tim Hiu said in an email response to questions.
Hiu said he wasn’t opposed to speeding up the process, but that would require the City Council to pass an ordinance to process these types of permits ahead of residential or business permits.
Duvaul said most people want to be discreet about building a shelter. “You do not have to let anyone know,” he said. “You can refer to it as a wine cellar.”
But Duvaul says working with steel shelters would be difficult to hide since a tall crane would be needed to drop it into a hole.
Walton McCarthy, principal mechanical engineer for Texas-based NORAD Shelter Systems LLC, and a well-known advocate for creating scientific standards for underground bomb shelters, says his company’s small nuclear-rated shelter can be installed using an excavator.
McCarthy says he’s engineered, designed and built more than 1,400 bomb shelters since 1977 under different companies.
His company, formed in 2016, sold 11 units in 2017 on Oahu, Maui and Hawaii island, but no one from Hawaii has purchased one yet this year. The $116,000 price tag for a six-person, fully equipped shelter with nuclear-biological-chemical air filtration may be prohibitive for most.
The sealed steel hull itself does not provide any protection and must be buried 6 to 7 feet underground. “The protection is from the earth and the geometry of the entranceway,” he said.
McCarthy asserts that installing a NORAD shelter would not require a permit since it has its own septic system, water tank and 12-volt power, so it is not connected to water, sewer or power. It also doesn’t require a foundation and is pre-engineered.
As an alternative, American Safe Room’s air-filtration system starts at $1,900.
The system “overpressures the safe room with filtered air so that all the air in the protected space is flowing outward through any potential leak points,” American Safe Room’s online information says. The system is advertised as having a dual-stage pre-filter, a nuclear-grade high-efficiency particulate arrestance filter (known as HEPA) and a gas-absorption filter optimized for nuclear events.
Building bomb and fallout shelters harkens back to the Cold War, even in Hawaii. In the 1960s, a Hilo company sold fallout shelters for $300 down and $1,995, according to a 1967 advertisement featuring “Family SAF-T fallout shelters” posted on the wall near HI-EMA spokesman Richard Rapoza’s desk. .
Manoa resident Jim Nakata, who grew up in the 1950s, recalls watching films at school showing the horrors of an atomic blast.
“For a child, it’s kind of nightmarish,” he said.
His neighbor built a fallout shelter during that time, and he and other neighborhood kids wondered where the key was kept, he said. But Nakata scoffs at the idea of fallout and bomb shelters today, saying nuclear bombs are significantly more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
“No way I would bother with one,” he said. “There’s no practical way. Personally, I’m not worried about it. I can’t worry about it.”
Too many things are required, including a “way to scrub the air,” food storage, possibly electrical and plumbing permits, building a shelter large enough for the entire family, having a generator or other backup source of electricity, Nakata said.
Hiu recommends that anyone considering building an underground shelter hire a design professional who could analyze soils, drainage patterns and the presence of groundwater to evaluate the feasibility.
Safe room provisions in Honolulu’s building code address temporary protection during a hurricane. But the building code does not include requirements to protect against nuclear fallout, which would “far exceed any minimum requirements that we could adopt,” Hiu said.
Star-Advertiser reporter William Cole contributed to this report.