Living in a Southwest Florida bomb shelter

fallout02.jpgNews-Press – by Laura Ruane

Lanais, jalousie windows, terrazzo floors: Those were the common elements of a Southwest Florida home built in the 1960s.

A smattering of custom-designed local homes, however, had an amenity folks never wanted to use: a built-in family-size fallout shelter.

No one knows exactly how many there were — perhaps no more than a dozen in the 1960s, said Stanley Ink, a structural engineer who designed a shelter for his North Fort Myers home built in 1968.  

Five years earlier, general contractor Comer Bowden had built a home for his family that sported a 2,100-square-foot, concrete cylindrical-walled shelter inside his family’s new home in Fort Myers.

“He was hoping to build more. … Everybody liked it, but it was very expensive to build,” Bowden’s daughter Danna told journalist Sam Cook for a 1998 column in The News-Press.

Fear of attack not unreasonable

Given the geo-political climate of the times, a built-in bunker wasn’t a far-fetched idea, Ink said.

Even after six years, Southwest Floridians had not forgotten the Cuban Missile Crisis of Oct. 14-28, triggered when U.S. reconnaissance photos showed the Soviet Union was building missile bases 90 miles away from Key West.

That crisis was averted, but no one doubted the Cold War could heat up again.

“No matter where you lived, fear of nuclear annihilation was troubling,” said Gary Mormino, a retired University of Florida history professor and author of several books about the state.

Among Southwest Floridians in the ’60s, “the best guess was that Miami or Tampa could be hit by a bomb. Depending on how the winds went, the dust could fall here,” Ink said.

Ink, now 83, doesn’t see himself an early day survivalist. During the 1960s, he was rearing a son and a daughter with wife Dee who taught at Tropic Isles Elementary, building Ink Engineering — and designing key elements of such subdivisions as Waterway Estates and public structures including the Lee Arena (Civic Center) and the county Emergency Operations Center that just got replaced last year.

Preparatory to planning the EOC on Ortiz Avenue, Ink studied for two weeks at Fort Belvoir, Va., to earn a national license in fallout shelter design.

Ink also volunteered in county civil defense, attending a seminar in New York City to become a certified fallout shelter manager.

“Survival crackers” in courthouse basement

From his studies, Ink learned the damaging effects of nuclear fallout drop 50 percent after two weeks. Public fallout shelter managers worked to make the premises livable for that long of a time period.

A 1968 photo in The News-Press shows Ink and others preparing to move drums of drinking water, sanitation kits and “survival crackers” into the basement of the Lee County Courthouse, which “was considered a natural fallout shelter,” Ink said.

The Ink family shelter, 8-by-11-feet, 4 inches, and with 12-inch-thick interior walls, wasn’t quite as Spartan in its food and furnishings. True, the family would have to lay out sleeping bags on deep, wall-mounted shelves. But the room was stocked with canned food, games and books.

Today, commercial-size cans of food still line a couple of shelves.

“At one time we had a year’s supply of food,” Ink said.

The Inks never spent a night in the shelter, but consider it a good hurricane shelter that also serves as a pantry and storeroom.

“During Hurricane Charley (in 2004) we had two sets of neighbors come over, but we stayed in the living room,” Ink said. “We figured that with our smaller windows there, we’d be fine. And, we were.”

Gracious living, built-in protection

In Fort Myers, Randy and Michelle Wesley and their two daughters are enjoying the ingenuity of the late contractor Comer Bowden. The Wesleys purchased their McGregor Boulevard home with bomb shelter about three years ago.

The shelter portion, with 12- to 14-inch solid concrete walls, ceiling and subfloor, holds the family kitchen, two bathrooms, two bedrooms and a dining area.

“Men have tried to protect themselves with some kind of armorplate for centuries … now it’s time to protect our loved ones,” reads a brochure from Bowden-Hawksley Construction Corp.

Bowden’s idea was to make a great-looking, comfortable living space that just happens to be a bomb shelter. The Wesleys think he succeeded on the former.

“It’s great for entertaining. Everyone comments on the circular architecture,” Randy Wesley said.

“You don’t think of it as a bunker,” added Michelle Wesley.

The Wesleys aren’t old enough to have the baby boomer memories of crouching under school desks during air-raid drills.

Still they relish its history and unique qualities: “All of our friends call it the hurricane house because of the safety and security in it,” Randy Wesley said.

The Wesleys are finishing up some home improvements, but have no plans to change the circle of security that Comer Bowden built at its core.

Michelle Wesley said: “Once we’re finished, I want to put an information box out front, so people can read about the house.”

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