Why Doomsday Bunkers Aren’t As Safe As You Think

In 1961, Business Week magazine posed the question that was on many Americans’ minds: “to dig or not to dig?” President John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union were sparring, and a nervous world watched as the superpowers loomed on the brink of nuclear war. Publications as diverse as Yale Review and Good Housekeeping ran articles on fallout shelters.

As an article in Time Magazine put it, “At cocktail parties and PTA meeting and family dinners, on buses and commuter trains and around office watercoolers, talk turns to shelters.”

Fast forward nearly 60 years, and people still talk about shelters. While we may have replaced the term “fallout shelter” with the term “doomsday bunker” or simply “bunker,” we still struggle to find ways to keep ourselves and our families safe during and after a catastrophic human-made or natural disaster.

Is building a doomsday bunker a good idea? Let’s look at the pros and cons.

Doomsday Bunker Pros

A Place Of Safety – While some people advocate having a remote bug out location away from your home, traveling that distance in a time of quick upheaval could be a serious problem. You may have little or no warning, and roads may not be accessible. Building an underground shelter near your home means you can get to a place of safety quickly and easily.

Storm Protection – A doomsday bunker can offer below-the-ground protection from severe weather events such as hurricanes and tornadoes, which are becoming more commonplace these days.

Fire Protection – Sometimes fleeing by foot or by vehicle is not an option with a fast-moving fire. An underground bunker could save your life in this quickly-changing and deadly situation. (See below for the con of this one.)

More Privacy – While some communities offer public shelters for their residents, many people panic at the idea of being cooped up in close quarters with a bunch of strangers.

Storage for Food and Supplies – You can stockpile food, clothing, ammunition, medicines, and supplies in an underground bunker all year round. Properly constructed and insulated underground bunkers can provide stable temperatures and humidity.

Peace of Mind – Knowing you have a plan for your family’s whereabouts in the event of an emergency can lower your stress levels.

Doomsday Bunker Cons

Now, let’s examine the other side of the issue. In certain scenarios, doomsday bunkers could actually cause more harm than good. Consider the location of your shelter carefully. Two important don’ts to keep in mind are:

  • Don’t build a shelter below sea level or on a flood plain or flood fringe, otherwise, you could be in serious danger of water damage or even drowning.
  • Don’t build in areas with fault lines or where earthquake activity occurs.

Here are some other cons of doomsday shelters to think about.

Weak Entryway – By its very nature as an entrance and an exit, your main door is a weak spot. Although you can strengthen this entryway with locks and bars, it still is more vulnerable than the rest of the bunker.

Emergency Exit – Most bunker exits (if they even have one) are in close proximity to entrances. If an intruder has discovered your bunker, you may not have the chance to escape unobserved.

Getting Enough Oxygen – Most underground bunkers use an above-ground air tube to provide oxygen. The problem with these air tubes – sometimes called snorkels – is that they can be a visual giveaway to the shelter. Another drawback is that an intruder can block the airflow or, worse yet, send poisonous gas down the tube.

Gas Leaks – A sophisticated air filtration system is needed for protection from chemicals, radiation, and biological agents. Events that could cause you to use your underground shelter in the first place are the same ones that can produce the lethal gases that could build up and kill occupants due to a shelter’s poorly ventilated environment.

In an underground shelter, you need two air ventilation systems — one to filter the air and another to protect from dirt, debris, birds, rodents, and weather elements.

Not Defensible – Yes, an underground bunker can protect you from certain natural elements, but it is hard to defend from human attack. If your entryway is blocked, you could be trapped. In most cases, you will be unable to survey the terrain above you without revealing your hidden location. Surveillance systems are a possibility, but they add greatly to your overall costs and upkeep.

Water Damage – In addition to the potential of flooding from the underground water table, underground shelters are susceptible to sewer leaks or septic tank overflow.

Mold – A moist environment often means the potential for mold growth. In some cases, breathing in molds is toxic to humans.

Cave-In Potential – Surviving underground is not as simple as using an unused mine shaft or burying a shipping container. Subterranean structures are at risk of caving in with the potential of lethal results.

Fire Weakens Steel – Staying warm underground is a real concern. However, building a fire underground not only affects your oxygen supply, but it can weaken the integrity of steel construction over time.

Fire Risks – Living in close quarters with many flammable substances can pose a significant fire risk. Even if you have fire extinguishers on hand, you can lose precious oxygen putting out a fire in an underground shelter.

Additionally, using an underground shelter during a forest fire can be both a blessing and a curse depending on the shelter’s construction. An underground bunker that can withstand the intense heat of a fire requires specific design considerations. An improper design can create a deadly oven rather than a safe haven.

Corrosion – Wood shelters can deteriorate underground, and steel can corrode without proper procedures in place.

Waste Disposal – It is not fun to think about, but waste – both human waste and other garbage – disposal is a big problem with emergency bunkers. If you plan to bring it up for disposal, you run the risk of drawing attention to your location. If you keep it in your shelter, you are dealing with the possibility of infection.

Mental Distress – Claustrophobia is the fear of enclosed spaces, and it affects about seven percent of the world population. However, when combined with the fear that accompanies an emergency situation, anxiety can be a disastrous component of an emergency shelter. Keep in mind that you will be in close contact with others, with a lack of fresh food, sunlight, the ability to exercise and other familiar comforts.

Sunlight helps govern our circadian rhythm, which is essential for proper sleep and well-being. Being confined to a small space can lead to panic, which can result in increased heart rate, dizziness, and shortness of breath. These feelings can lead to poor judgment, which can affect your safety in a survival scenario.

When considering a doomsday shelter, it is critical to consider your purpose. While you can use a doomsday shelter for short-term emergencies, such as during a hurricane or tornado, it should be designed for the long haul – hence the word “doomsday” in the name.

You will need a sustainable water source and a long-term method for waste removal. You also will need a plan for power and, yes, for entertainment. Too often, doomsday planners, forget books and board games or even paper and pencil and a deck of cards. We humans go nuts without something to occupy our minds. Consider some forms of entertainment a need, not just a want, for a long-term survival situation.

If, after weighing the pros and cons, you decide to take the next step, check out these resources for determining your purpose and then your design.

Of course, if money is no roadblock, there are ways to get around most, if not all, of the problems listed in this article. Take a look at this underground fortress in Germany, for example.

According to a 2016 article in The Hollywood Reporter, an increase in mass shootings, terrorism, and divisive politics has spurred the desire for home security in general – and emergency shelters in particular – among the wealthy. The article describes the new emergency shelter of the 21st century as being thousands of square feet in size and 10 feet or more underground.

“Those who can afford to pull out all the stops for so-called self-preservation are doing so — in a fashion that goes way beyond the submerged corrugated metal units adopted by the reality show “preppers” — to prepare for anything from nuclear bombings to drastic climate-change events,” according to the article.

The upscale end of the bunker market includes actors, professional athletes, and politicians. The article reports that these high-end emergency bunkers can reach more than $8 million in design and building costs and include underground lighting for gardens, fitness rooms, and even theaters.

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