- Associated Press - Saturday, October 7, 2017

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Workers for the local levee district have cleared away the vegetation that was obscuring the entrance and cut the metal seals on the door.

A photographer and I, decked out in waders and face masks, step inside and make our way carefully down four flights of rusty metal stairs. At the bottom, our guide, Derek Boese of the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority-East, has to stop. The water is too high for his knee-high rubber boots.

So, two stories below the wide grassy expanse between Pontchartrain Boulevard and West End Boulevard in Lakeview, we are on our own, pointing flashlights into a moldy, half-flooded chamber. Under the waist-high water is what feels like a tangle of chairs and wires, perhaps a fallen door. Poking above the water line are a vintage RC Cola and a line of filing cabinets.

We are inside the former New Orleans Civil Defense Emergency Operations Center. Opened in 1962, the spacious complex of meeting rooms, hallways and dormitories was designed to house city officials and law enforcement leaders in case of a nuclear attack.

It was abandoned more than two decades ago and has served since mainly as a curiosity for adventure-seekers and graffiti artists. Now, though, its future is up for debate. The Flood Protection Authority owns the bunker and is trying to figure out what to do with it. That might mean demolishing the structure or making some use of it.

Though the bunker has been abandoned for decades, it appears that the former occupants left in a hurry and didn’t bother to take much with them. Perhaps they figured they’d soon be back. Aside from the water and decay, it seems frozen in time.

The filing cabinets are still full of moldering paper, manuals still stacked on desks next to Cold War-era communications equipment.

Inside the circular situation room at the center of the bottom floor, the wall still carries a radiation dosage chart and maps of local “Fallout and Natural Disaster Shelters.”

Twin staircases at opposite sides of the room lead up to the second floor. There, bunk rooms and bathrooms surround a smaller dining hall.

Off to one side, there’s an infirmary, with hypodermic needles on trays and an examining table with stirrups.

Rusted cans of Campbell’s Soup, buckets of drinking water and canisters of coffee are stacked in a large room that must have been a pantry. A meat slicer in the kitchen is nearly rusted over.

There are signs of more recent incursions. Graffiti dot the walls. In one room we get a momentary jolt: “RedRum” is scrawled in large red letters, and a swastika is painted at the bottom of the stairs along with the words “Capitalism go home.”

Before it became a moldy ruin, the bunker was the centerpiece of New Orleans’ planned defense against nuclear attack and other disasters, a place where city leaders could gather to run the city in the event of a catastrophe.

An online video detailing the city’s response to Hurricane Betsy in 1965 shows city officials, including then-Mayor Victor Schiro, entering the Emergency Operations Center during the storm.

The complex has had various guests over the years, including videographer Mike Kennedy and a couple of friends, who documented a foray inside on his website in 2009.

“It was disgusting,” he said. “The air was decades old.”

Kennedy and his friends spent over an hour touring the EOC, and it made him ill, he said.

“The whole time we were down there, I was a second away from saying, ‘Let’s quit,’ ” Kennedy recalled.

After that, officials decided to weld the bunker’s door shut, which was how it remained until Tuesday.

During Lou Reese’s years as a volunteer and three years as deputy director of New Orleans Civil Defense in the 1980s, he spent a lot of time in the EOC.

“The proposed primary target for New Orleans would have been at the foot of Canal and the river,” Reese said, referring to expectations on where a Soviet nuclear strike would hit the city. The EOC’s “primary function was to be a place where people could go in the event of a nuclear attack.”

The EOC was built to withstand a small nuclear weapon detonation, he said. Occasionally, in the early days, the Secret Service would arrive and inspect the facility in the event that the president was in the southern part of the United States during an attack and needed to be evacuated to New Orleans.

The New Orleans Civil Defense Emergency Operations Center was opened in 1962 and abandoned for good less than three decades later. Since then, it has been the subject of occasional interest from adventure seekers and graffiti artists, until several years ago when the door was welded shut out of fears about safety. What was once a gleaming, state of the art command center is now a vexing issue for the authority that owns it.

Between the site and Robert E. Lee Boulevard, there is now a small subdivision. But back then, it was a helicopter landing pad for ferrying VIPs in and out quickly, Reese said.

The bunker remained in use until the late 1980s or so, Reese said. In 1985, a legislative act put it under the control of the Orleans Levee Board, said the SLFPA-East’s Wilma Heaton, who is researching the site before the flood authority decides what to do with it. That’s how it’s come under the control of the SLFPA-East.

“We have three options,” Heaton said: fill it up with concrete and leave it, clean it and then destroy it, or clean it and turn it into a historical site such as a museum.

The first option should be off the table until the authority at least knows what may be in the bunker that needs to be remediated, she added. That environmental assessment is a good first step to figuring out what should be done, and public comment will have to be sought.

Kennedy, the videographer who went in with his friends, said the place offered an interesting historical perspective.

“It’s Cold War time travel,” he said.

___

Information from: The New Orleans Advocate, https://www.neworleansadvocate.com

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