Cold War-era underground government facility in Denton built to survive nuclear attack

Former civil defense facility now home to FEMA's Region 6 headquarters

By Tim Gerber

DENTON, Texas - (KSAT) In the late 1950s and early '60s, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was heating up and the threat of nuclear war was a very real possibility. To prepare for that threat, the U.S. government began building a series of underground bunkers to protect federal civil defense workers who would respond to the aftermath of a nuclear strike. One of those bunkers was built outside Dallas, in the city of Denton.

"The facility came about because in the 1950s, the Eisenhower administration realized that we needed a place for federal employees to seek shelter from a nuclear attack and this was one of five facilities outside of the Washington, D.C., area," said Earl Armstrong, public information specialist for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. "It had to be a certain distance away from a major metropolitan area and it had to be close to a Nike missile battery, and at the time, there was one just about 3 or 4 miles from here."

Built in 1961, the underground fortress was designed to survive a 1 megaton nuclear blast detonated within a mile of the facility. It was equipped with power generators, an air filtration system and several blast doors covering the stairwells and elevators that lead to the two underground floors.

"All of the electrical wiring and the plumbing were shock mounted, so that when the shock wave from a nuclear blast a couple miles away came through, everything would move and hopefully not break," Armstrong said. "When it was originally built, it had an industrial-grade kitchen that could cook meals for up to 300 people three meals a day for 30 days."

There are escape hatches and observation towers that could be used by workers to check the area after an attack.

"If they wanted to actually see what was going on outside after a nuclear attack, somebody would have had to climb up a ladder, open up a steel door, climbed in, close the steel door, then reach up and they would have had to open up those steel ports and look out," Armstrong said. "The are two emergency escape hatches built into the building and somebody has to pull a chain and it takes about 15 minutes for the thing to get fully open. That's there in case they couldn't get the blast doors open and had to leave."

The facility also contained a state-of-the-art communications room to keep in contact with the outside world even after an attack.

"The communications room is protected from electromagnetic pulse attack by copper in the floors, walls, ceilings (and) doors, and copper rods going down into the ground, and in the event that those antennas had been blown away, there are three telescoping antennas on the property that in theory would have moved any debris from the top and would have raised and they would have tried to communicate with whoever might be left," Armstrong said.

Originally home to the Southwestern Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization, the facility was eventually taken over by FEMA in 1979.

Over the years, as the Cold War came to a close, much of the building's fallout shelter features were made inoperable mainly due to a lack of funding and difficulty finding parts to maintain the older features. The 13-ton blast doors were welded open, and the kitchen and dormitories and decontamination showers were replaced with offices.

"Back in the mid-1980s, the kitchen was stocked with 30 days of freeze-dried food. Up until a couple of years ago when they welded the blast doors open it still could have fulfilled its function," Armstrong said. "The decontamination room and the clinic and the kitchen all had to go away after Hurricane Katrina because we had to make room for the additional staff Congress mandated that we hire. We're not a fallout shelter anymore. We carry out our day-to-day operations of helping people before, during and after disasters."

Now home to FEMA's Region 6 Headquarters, the facility houses mobile response vehicles and personnel that have responded to everything from the Oklahoma City bombing, the explosion of the space shuttle and numerous floods and major hurricanes. The last time the facility's Regional Response Coordination Center was buzzing with activity was during Hurricane Harvey.

"When something happens like a hurricane or flood or tornado or even some ice storms, this is where people from other federal agencies gather and we figure out who needs what, when, where, how much they need and how can we get it there fast," Armstrong said.

While the underground bunker has never really been a secret, it was widely reported on in local newspapers when it was being built. It has been and continues to be the source of mystery and rumors for some curious people.  

"In the early days and still today, some people think this is where the president would come in case of nuclear attack," Armstrong said. "We've had people show up at the gates and at the door wanting to see where all the people are held. No, we don't hold anybody here. There's two floors, only two, 58 feet down, 50,000 square feet. No, we do not have missiles here. Those cone-shaped things out in the lawn are for telescoping antennas."

While it can no longer fulfill its originally intended purpose, the facility and the people who work there continue to provide a vital service to the nation.

"We're trying to help people before, during and after a disaster, nothing more than that," Armstrong said. "We just try to figure out what people need and how to get it to them."

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