- Associated Press - Sunday, June 28, 2015

COLUMBUS, Neb. (AP) - Deep in the bowels of the Platte County Courthouse, there’s a space most visitors don’t get to see.

It could be the safest place in Columbus.

After all, it was built to withstand a nuclear attack, the Columbus Telegram (http://bit.ly/1Hh0xGk ) reported.

These days, the county’s emergency operations center is used primarily as a hub for storm spotting during severe weather and related training exercises. Platte County Emergency Management Director Tim Hofbauer’s office is located there along with the dispatch center for the sheriff’s office.

But the mini-maze of rooms encased in thick concrete was added for a much more ominous purpose.

The area, which opened in 1976 as part of a courthouse addition that included the former jail and sheriff’s office, once served as a nuclear fallout shelter.

Constructed during the height of the Cold War, the county received financial assistance from the federal Defense Civil Preparedness Agency to build the shelter as part of the continuity of government plan.

The goal, according to Hofbauer, was to create a safe place for county and city officials to stay following a nuclear attack.

Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha would have been the most likely target, but other high-risk areas were much closer to Columbus.

Underground silos capable of launching ballistic missiles could be found across eastern Nebraska, including along Highway 92 near Brainard.

“The thought was to evacuate people from the eastern part of the state to the western part,” said Hofbauer, who remembers the fallout shelters at the high school in Osceola and his parents’ home - part of a civil defense plan that encouraged the construction of public and private shelters.

A Mobile Army Surgical Hospital capable of treating victims following a nuclear strike was located in Schuyler, according to Hofbauer.

“They used to be all over the place,” he said of the fallout shelters.

But the courthouse site had a more specific purpose.

It served as the local Radiological Defense Center (RADEF), capable of housing government officials and their families for up to 14 days in an area set up to coordinate relief strategies and other efforts.

The operations center is located in the middle of the courthouse basement - “That provides protection from the radiation coming in,” Hofbauer said - and is equipped with its own water well, a heating and cooling system capable of recirculating inside air and generator with a 1,000-gallon fuel tank.

“The generator gets used quite a bit,” Hofbauer said. “We’ve never used the water well. It’s tested, but it’s never used.”

The emergency operations center had its own phone system - a functional ham radio is still located there - and the all-electric kitchen shared with the jail before that facility relocated was stocked with food.

Hofbauer keeps some canned food and MREs on hand today. But the MREs are probably expired, he admitted.

A 35-pound tin can filled with Civil Defense Carbohydrate Supplement - red and yellow candies that resemble lemon drops - sits partially opened on a table. Brave visitors, mainly children on school tours, are invited try one of the 52-year-old pieces of candy. Hofbauer still hasn’t.

Pins sticking from a map inside the old RADEF room point to the location of old fallout shelters and Hofbauer kept the plans outlining the steps to follow after a nuclear attack. There are also 10 functional Geiger counters - removed from their boxes every five years for calibration - and five metal-framed bunk beds that likely haven’t been used since the Loup River flooding in the early 1990s.

Hofbauer, who has been the local emergency management director since 1994, said the space is no longer large enough to hold every government official and their families. And he’s not expecting a nuclear disaster anytime soon.

But the emergency operations center remains a possible refuge following a tornado or other natural disasters or, perhaps less likely, a pandemic flu outbreak or anthrax attack.

“It’s just ready to go if we ever need it,” Hofbauer said.

___

Information from: Columbus Telegram, http://www.columbustelegram.com

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