By Troy Anderson, Staff Writer
Posted: 11/28/2009 08:34:39 PM PST
Los Angeles County Area D coordinator Brenda Hunemiller displays a geiger counter from the 50’s which Los Angeles County still has in storage. Celebrating the 50th anniversary of its Civil Defense program, Hunemiller and other area coordinators are now more concerned about natural disasters. (Photo by David Crane/Staff)
EL MONTE – As Los Angeles County celebrates the 50th anniversary of its Civil Defense program this month, officials have rediscovered remarkable treasure troves of relics from the 1950s.
Among the finds are a massive underground bomb shelter in El Monte now used to store new cars, and storage rooms full of old rations and guidebooks that sound almost quaint today in their tips for nuclear-war survivors.
Another find was military instructions on what to do in case of a coastal invasion of Southern California.
“I found letters in the storeroom from World War II generals to the area coordinators, saying the last stand would take place in the San Gabriel Valley and they would move all the civilians back to the shelter of the San Gabriel Mountains,” said Brenda Hunemiller, an area coordinator for the county’s current disaster management program. “It’s pretty amazing stuff.”
Rummaging through an old Azusa storeroom, Hunemiller recently discovered Civil Defense materials that included a book listing hundreds of fallout and bomb shelters and 55-gallon drums filled with K- and C-rations, medicines and other survival supplies.
In November 1959, 12 cities signed a joint powers agreement with the Board of Supervisors to create the Civil Defense program in case of nuclear attack.
Today, the program has evolved to focus on a variety of potential disasters, such as earthquakes and wildfires.
But despite the move away from preparations for nuclear war, Office of Emergency Management spokesman Ken Kondo said the recent discovery of the Civil Defense supplies and a large fallout shelter in El Monte has renewed interest in the Civil Defense program and the shelters.
Among the hundreds of bomb shelters in the county, officials recently discovered a still-intact one below what is now one of the world’s largest car dealerships. At Penske Longo Lexus in El Monte, customers can pick out their car from inside the former bomb shelter built by a previous business, Kondo said.
“It’s a big and cavernous place,” Kondo said. “It’s gigantic. You could sit several football or soccer fields in there.”
The federal Civil Defense program was created after World War II. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the military was concerned about a potential invasion of the Southern California coastline, Kondo said.
After WWII, many in the government and the public feared a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. In an effort to protect the public, the Federal Civil Defense Administration was created in 1951.
One of the first campaigns emphasized building and designating fallout and bomb shelters.
“We still have those rusting, old air-raid sirens around,” said Joel Bellman, an aide to county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
A fallout shelter sign is still on the wall in the lobby at the county Hall of Records downtown. Underneath the hall and surrounding areas is a labyrinth of underground facilities and tunnels connecting one of the largest government complexes in the nation.
However, most of the fallout shelter signs throughout the county have been taken down over the years.
Since the creation of the Civil Defense program, the OEM has responded to numerous natural disasters, including the 1992 riots, 1994 Northridge Earthquake and numerous wildfires, floods and mudslides.
But even though the “Big One” – an earthquake of 7.8 magnitude or greater – can’t compare to the 10.5 earthquake that destroys Los Angeles in the movie “2012,” Kondo said the film highlights that not only government agencies, but residents too need to prepare for the next catastrophe in the “disaster capital of the world.”
“It showed me we have a lot of work ahead of us,” Kondo said.