Long before Hawaii's false missile alert, Rochester had elaborate civil defense plan

Chrysler siren still visible on Andrews Street that would sound alarm in the event of a missile strike headed toward the Rochester area

Rochester, N.Y. (WHAM) - It turned out to be a false alarm, but for a short time people in Hawaii alerted to an incoming missile strike were left on prepared. A network of faded signs all around Rochester are reminder of a different time when such a warning might have had a different outcome.

“There was this sense of pervasive dread that’s talked Rochester,” said historian Jeff Ludwig.

The fallout shelter sign attached to East High School might be something students here learn about in history class. Beginning in 1950, at schools, post offices, and private buildings, Rochester opened a network of shelters.

"Everyone would have 10 square feet of space and two weeks of rations. They wanted a bed for everybody. In the early days they were adding 20,000 beds a month," said Ludwig.

Lt. Colonial Robert Abbott - a war hero and prisoner of war - coordinated the 584 shelters, which were designed to have enough room to house all 600,000 Monroe County residents. His hand-typed inventory lists show detailed accounts of food, medicine and equipment such as radios for various town and village locations.

"Local defense was the best option because the state and federal government were too far away, so the county had to defend for itself," Ludwig said.

The building at 144 Andrews Street in Rochester is an indicator of how the alert would come. The red Chrysler siren remains in that location today. On November 8, 1955, its 138 decibels were put to a test.

"They sounded it off with what Lt. Abbott said would be the loudest blast heard around the world. Now we have smart phones; people in Hawaii got that horrifying message to their phones," said Ludwig. "This was a way of having mass communication to people of imminent danger."

Children gathered for the blast at school windows were shown in archived photos covering their ears. Those same children were also shown civil defense films on how to "duck and cover"in response to the alarm. In some cases, students were ducking under their school desks, in others ducking along a brick wall if outside. Admittedly the films are dated.

"Under the hokey surface, there's this sense of pervasive dread that stalked Rochester," said Ludwig.

Homeland Security now stockpiles supplies including cots, blankets and pillows at locations around the state-meant mostly for response to natural disasters. One of the locations is in Chili.

The Cold War threat has subside and the fallout shelters have been long decommissioned; most have been converted to storage space and are not thought of, save perhaps in a history class.

Until perhaps this weekend.

"This was something that kept them up at night. Not only was it not that long ago, but now (with the Hawaii situation) we're re-living those fears," said Ludwig.

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