Dallas-area builder makes underground shelters to last

Company makes small, large shelters for all catastrophes

By Tim Gerber - Reporter/Anchor

FORNEY, Texas - At the height of the Cold War, bomb shelters were a common part of American life.

Civil Defense films from the 1950s taught children to "duck and cover" and find a public fallout shelter if nuclear bombs were dropped by the Russians.

More than 60 years later, underground shelters are making a comeback of sorts, but these high-tech shelters aren't anything like what your parents and grandparents grew up with. Some are like underground cities complete with fresh food, recreation, and entertainment.

One shelter builder in the Dallas area is designing shelters that can survive the most unimaginable doomsday scenarios.

"When you invest in underground shelters, you invest in an insurance policy. You hope you never have to use it," said Walton McCarthy, President of Radius Engineering International.

McCarthy has been building and selling underground shelters for 32 years. Since 1978, he's built 1,400 all over the world, including 50 in San Antonio.

McCarthy said he started building shelters after a conversation he had a cocktail party back in the 1970s. A young girl asked her mom if she could be an architect if she grew up.

Troubled by the girl's statement, McCarthy said he called the girl's mother a few days later thinking the child was terminally ill. In reality, the family was preparing for something quite different.

"She said, 'If there's a conflict with the Soviet Union, we have a euthanasia plan,'" McCarthy said, recalling the conversation. "They had a plan to kill themselves because they didn't want to suffer from radiation sickness and that really scared me so that's how this thing started."

McCarthy started doing serious research about nuclear weapons and their effects and how to survive them. He learned so much about the topic he wrote a book about it called, "Principles of protection: U.S. Handbook of NBC Weapon Fundamentals and Shelter Engineering Standards."

McCarthy is now a contractor for the Department of Defense and he's considered one of the top experts in the shelter building industry.

"All of our structures are designed for full chemical, full nuclear, biological, EMP, ground shock, earthquakes," McCarthy said. "When people buy these, they're buying something that can protect them from everything. I deal with a lot of military people all over the world. I'm not aware of any weapon that this could not protect you from."

Made of composite fiberglass that is both waterproof and bulletproof, McCarthy's shelters can protect anywhere from 8 to 200 adults for 6 months to 5 years.

The interior of the smaller shelters resemble campers with bunk beds, a kitchen, and a bathroom that fits inside a shower. The larger shelters can be linked together to create underground cities complete with fresh fruit and vegetables.

"We've developed underground hydroponics where we can get a crop every six weeks," McCarthy said. "We have entrances where you can drive a vehicle in. A lot of these corporations, when they buy these, they will set these up so they can bring a farm tractor in so when they come out they can start farming."

While the smaller shelters can feel a little cramped, the larger shelters are more comfortable.

"We try to set this up so people have a very open feeling because claustrophobia, when you're in a shelter that long, is always an issue," McCarthy said. "You've got normal living in there. High ceilings, lots of light, lots of fresh filtered air, you can grow plants. We always set it up so when you're in one of the condos, when you look out the window, you see growing plants."

McCarthy has sold his shelters to the military, physicians groups, corporations, and even churches.

Despite all the hype surrounding end-of-the-world scenarios this year predicted by ancient civilizations like the Mayans, McCarthy said the majority of his customers aren't believers in the 2012 Doomsday scenarios.

"Most of the people that we sell to are pretty sophisticated people who are going to do a little bit of homework. They're going to realize maybe something is going to happen, but it's not a doomsday thing," McCarthy said. "I'd say more than 90 percent of our business is because they are worried about terrorism."

Buried 8-and-half feet underground, the shelters are nearly impossible to detect.  You could be standing on top of one in an open field and you'd never know it.

The only visible parts are the hatch and some air vents and customers go to great lengths to hide those.

"We've got decoy hatches, we've got fiberglass trees, we've got fiberglass rocks, we've got all kinds of things out there," McCarthy said. "This is James Bond stuff and the customers are incredibly creative on how they cover this stuff up."

McCarthy's customers demand a high level of secrecy. They don't want anyone to know where their shelter is located.  He has to be creative when it comes to getting permits and installing the shelters.

"It's always an issue. We have arguments with every single municipality in the country but we've won every one in the end because everyone has a right to protect themselves," McCarthy said. "The neat thing about having our own truck is we don't have a bill of lading so there's no paper trail. That's really important to people. The address we put on the permit is usually a 100 miles past the delivery address."

This kind of protection isn't cheap, McCarthy said the cheapest shelters cost nearly $20,000 per person. His larger shelters can cost millions. Even so, some customers have more than one.

"We have a number of customers where we have four or five shelters around the country that they can go to depending on where they are so they have a choice," McCarthy said.

While he's not sure what kind of event will force his customers underground, McCarthy knows he has plenty of options to survive it.

"I belong to a community shelter and my wife and I are the 24th and 25th people on that one," McCarthy said. "I have about 600 shelters throughout the country that want me in there if there's a disaster so we're in pretty good shape."

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