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Garrett M. Graff
The Secret History of FEMA
FEMA gets no respect.
Consider: The two men who are supposed to be helping run the federal government’s disaster response agency had a pretty quiet late August. Even as a once-in-a-thousand-year storm barreled into Houston, these two veterans of disaster response—Daniel A. Craig and Daniel J. Kaniewski—found themselves sitting on their hands.
Both had been nominated as deputy administrators in July, but Congress went on its long August recess without taking action on either selection—despite the fact that both are eminently qualified for the jobs.
Leaving the roles open as the annual Atlantic hurricane season arrived was the clearest recent sign that FEMA—an agency whose success or failure translates directly into human suffering avoided or exacerbated—barely registers in Washington.
In fact, FEMA has always been an odd beast inside the government—an agency that has existed far from the spotlight except for the occasional high-stakes appearance during moments of critical need. It can disappear from the headlines for years in between a large hurricane or series of tornadoes.
But FEMA’s under-the-radar nature was originally a feature, not a bug. During the past seven decades, the agency has evolved from a top-secret series of bunkers designed to protect US officials in case of a nuclear attack to a sprawling bureaucratic agency tasked with mobilizing help in the midst of disaster.
The transition has not been smooth, to say the least. And to this day, the agency’s weird history can be glimpsed in its strange mix of responsibilities, limitations, and quirks. And then there’s this fun fact: Along the way, FEMA’s forefathers created a legacy that is too often forgotten. Inside those bunkers during the 1970s, the nation’s emergency managers invented the first online chat program—the forerunner to Slack, Facebook Messenger, and AIM, which have together transformed modern life.
Bureaucratic indifference has marked nearly every aspect of the nation’s homeland security operations, a point best indicated by the FCDA’s evolution: Over the following decades, it migrated regularly between different departments and underwent nearly a dozen name changes and agency affiliations before eventually becoming the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the 1970s. After the 9/11 attacks there was yet another organizational reshuffling, and the agency finally ended up part of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003.
Most of these various predecessors to FEMA weren’t all that concerned with civilian natural disasters. They were primarily focused on responding to nuclear war; the evolution to being the first call after a hurricane, flood, or tornado came about in part because it turned out America doesn’t have all that many nuclear wars—and the equipment and supply stockpiles and disaster-response experts at FEMA’s predecessors were useful for something other than the apocalypse.
FEMA was the result of Jimmy Carter’s efforts to restore some primacy to civil defense planning, bringing it back into the spotlight after years of diminishing budgets. The administration threw its weight behind a congressional effort to reestablish what was then known as the Office of Emergency Preparedness under a new name, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, uniting the nation’s disaster response with its planning for “continuity of government,” the secret programs that were supposed to snap into place in the event of nuclear war.
Indeed, FEMA was hobbled from the start, limited by weak central leadership, full of political patrons, and pulled in multiple directions by its disparate priorities—some public, some secret. As one Reagan-era assessment of the agency concluded, “FEMA may well be suffering from a case of too many missions for too few staff and resources.… FEMA itself might be a mission impossible.”
Today, conspiracy theorists fear that FEMA is setting up concentration camps to house political dissidents (Google “FEMA camps” if you want to lose an hour or two in a rabbit hole). The truth is a bit stranger: FEMA, as it turns out, doesn’t construct camps for political dissidents—but it started by taking one over.
As meteorology advanced and better technologies arrived, the Weather Bureau handed off the majority of the 100-acre facility to the Army for use as a World War I–era artillery range. The government then spent the better part of the 1920s trying without success to get rid of the property. Later still, beginning in 1936, Mount Weather became a Bureau of Mines facility where the agency tested various boring methods. The rock on the mountain was exceptionally dense, and the bureau began building a narrow but lengthy tunnel into the mountain for experiments on blasting and drilling methods.
During World War II, the government housed as many as 100 conscientious objectors there, pressing them into service as weather researchers to help develop better forecasts for the Northern Hemisphere. After the war, the facility went back to the Bureau of Mines, which redoubled its efforts at developing new boring techniques. In a lengthy 1953 report on the “widely acclaimed” problems solved by the mountain’s engineers, the Interior Department bragged, “From Mount Weather in the last few years has come a mass of technical data on drilling, steels to use in drills and rods, diamond drilling, and related subjects.” Its work on diamond drill bits was considered, well, groundbreaking.
That publication was one of the last public mentions of the site for decades. Even as the Interior report went to press, the government began to slowly expunge the existence of Mount Weather from official mention. The Soviet Union now had atomic weapons; the Cold War was on, and preparations for an all-out nuclear exchange had to be made. Given its distance from Washington, its exceptionally hard rock, the preexisting tunnel, and its pre-located boring machines, Mount Weather was a perfect place to outfit an executive-branch bunker. If the worst happened, the American government could continue to function underground.
By the Kennedy years, Mount Weather included all the amenities and life-support systems of a top-of-the-line bunker: Helicopter landing pads and a sewage treatment plant were atop the mountain, but underneath was where the real facility existed, with underground reservoirs for both drinking water and cooling needs, diesel generators, a hospital, radio and television broadcast facilities, cafeterias, its own fire department and police force. Some 800 blue mesh hammocks sat ready for evacuated personnel, who would sleep in shifts throughout the day. Plastic flowers dotted the tables in the cafeteria.
It was just one of dozens of bunkers and relocation facilities that FEMA’s predecessor agencies built around the country, including what it called Federal Regional Center bunkers in places like Denton, Texas; Maynard, Massachusetts; Thomasville, Georgia; Bothell, Washington; and Denver, Colorado. The Denton center, the first to open in 1964—and still in use today—was a 50,000-square-foot, two-level bunker that could have supported several hundred officials for 30 days. It had its own drinking well, laundry facilities, diesel generators, and 13-ton blast doors. The facility kitchen could have served 1,500 meals a day and its walk-in freezers could double as a morgue. The centers also included duplicates of vital records, to help affected agencies maintain continuity of operations. Any of the facilities could be used by the president or other high-ranking government leaders if they happened to be caught nearby during an attack, and they had broadcast booths ready to connect to the nation’s Emergency Broadcast System.
This elaborate network of national bunkers—and the unique responsibilities they had in hosting US officials after a nuclear attack—made FEMA’s predecessors and the national continuity-of-government program leaders in the developing field of computers and technology. By the early 1970s, Mount Weather and what was then known as the Office of Emergency Preparedness had amassed some of the most sophisticated and cutting-edge computers in the world to help it respond to the complex scenarios of an unfolding attack.
A large specially built bubble-shaped pod inside Mount Weather’s East Tunnel contained several advanced computers, which were disconnected from the network at 9 pm each night so that teams could conduct classified research and computations until 8:30 am the next day. Inside the pod, the room-sized UNIVAC 1108 supercomputer, which retailed for about $1.6 million, represented the cutting-edge technology of multiprocessors, allowing the computer to do multiple functions at once. “I’m at a loss to describe its maximum capacity,” a UNIVAC executive said at the time, awed by the processing power installed at Mount Weather.
Those computers deep inside Mount Weather helped spawn one of modern’s life most transformative technologies.
“Authenticate,” the watch officer at FEMA’s alternate facility in Olney would have challenged. The authentication codewords for the system were distributed in a red envelope every three months to all the users of the emergency broadcast system; codewords were generally two- or three-syllable words, two for every day of the year—one for the activation of a warning, one for the termination of a warning.
Then, following the NORAD watch officer providing the correct authentication code, the Olney’s watch officer would activate the national alert—bells would sound at Mount Weather and all 10 regional FEMA headquarters, as well as at 400 other federal facilities and more than 2,000 local and state “warning points,” such as emergency 911 dispatch centers. Each warning point would hear the same message: “Attention all stations. This is the National Warning Center. Emergency. This is an Attack Warning. Repeat. This is an Attack Warning.”
The FEMA watch officers would also activate a separate system to announce the attack to the national media, radio, and television broadcast networks—breaking into national programming with the alert. Similar alerts would go out from the FAA to all airborne pilots, from NOAA on the national weather radio network, and from the Coast Guard to mariners afloat. Some of the nation’s warning systems were more unconventional: A plexiglass-shielded Button No. 13 in the DC mayor’s emergency command center, at 300 Indiana Avenue NW, just a few blocks from the US Capitol, would activate “Emerzak,” seizing control of the city’s entire “Muzak” network, replacing the piped-in bossa nova of the city’s elevators, lobbies, medical offices, and department stores with emergency instructions.
But the warning would have made a big difference to one of FEMA’s other secret tasks: Figuring out the highest federal official still alive after an attack and designating that person President of the United States.
Beginning during the Cold War and continuing up to the present day, FEMA’s Central Locater System tracks the whereabouts of all the officials who are in the presidential line of succession, 24 hours a day, ensuring the government is ready to whisk them away from their regular lives at a moment’s notice. They work closely with a special team of Air Force helicopter pilots who practice in the skies over Washington daily, ready to drop onto helipads, well-groomed lawns, the National Mall, and even sports fields if necessary, to ensure the survival of those chosen few.
In April 1980 President Carter’s White House Military Office instituted new procedures with FEMA to monitor the attendance of all presidential successors “at major, publicly announced functions outside the White House complex.” While such gatherings of the US leadership had been commonplace in the past—at inaugurations, States of the Union, state funerals, and the like—the rising tensions of the Cold War made continuity-of-government planners questions their wisdom. “The situation provides an inviting target to enemy attack or terrorist activity, and represents an unnecessary risk to national leadership,” the White House Military Office wrote, outlining the new procedures.
When such gatherings seemed imminent, FEMA was to notify the White House and the assistant to the president for national security affairs would recommend to the president which successor should skip the event and serve as the designated survivor. The Central Locator System tracked the whereabouts of the successors daily, and once a month, after the fact, audited a single day to determine whether it had correctly known where each Cabinet member was. The new White House and FEMA procedures got their first test at Reagan’s inaugural—and it’s a protocol that continues to the present day.
Project 908 saw FBI agents, working effectively undercover for FEMA, detailing large warehouses, automobile facilities, Masonic temples, Elks lodges, casinos, camp sites, Coca-Cola bottling plants, Indian bingo halls, country inns, furniture stores, and other potential relocation facilities. In Arkansas, agents lined up a meeting with Walmart executives to discuss using the company’s huge stores for Project 908, explaining as a cover that they wanted to learn crisis management techniques from companies that had large centralized leadership. Denver agents dismissed a closed Coors brewing plant in Colorado because the caretaker was “loose-mouthed.” Meanwhile, in Redding, California, 160 miles north of the state capital, FBI agents approached the owner of Viking Skate Country (“Redding’s fun center for kids!”), known to the government as “Sacramento Site #34,” and outlined their proposal. The owner responded enthusiastically, telling agents he was a “fiercely loyal American” and would “cooperate fully.”
Under the Crisis Relocation Plan, nearly 150 million Americans—out of the country’s then total population of 225 million—would be evacuated out of 400 “high-risk” cities into smaller surrounding towns and these preselected buildings; under FEMA’s estimates, some 65 percent of that population could be evacuated in as little as one day and fully 95 percent could be evacuated in three days. Such strategic warning, FEMA estimated, would be achievable under most circumstances, since it was “more likely that [a nuclear attack] would follow a period of intense international tension.”
Under FEMA’s plans, the agency had a multistage effort for informing civilians about how best to evacuate. First would come “Protection in the Nuclear Age,” a 25-minute bilingual film produced in 1978 that would air across the country, outlining the threat—and the hope. Copies of the film were distributed in advance to civil defense officials and some television stations, and 15 prewritten newspaper articles distributed by FEMA covered much of the same ground.
The low-tech film featured only illustrations and animations of stick figures—no live action—because by the 1970s civil defense planners had grown tired of retaping propaganda films every time fashion or car styles changed. As one FEMA official explained, “Stick figures don’t get obsolete.” The film tried to put an optimistic spin on nuclear war, providing hope and underscoring that survival was not only possible but—with planning—probable. “Defense Department studies show that even under the heaviest possible attack, less than 5 percent of our entire land mass would be affected by blast and heat from nuclear weapons,” the film’s narrator explained, as red flashes exploded across the United States.
Then would come detailed evacuation instructions: FEMA would distribute millions of preprinted brochures, perhaps going door to door or perhaps by distributing it with local newspapers. They also took out ads in local telephone books. “As the crisis intensifies and evacuation appears imminent, if you have a vacation cabin or relatives or friends outside the Risk Area, but within a safe distance, go there as soon as possible,” the brochures explained.
Together, FEMA estimated the multimedia campaign would boost survival rates by 8 to 12 percent. All told, FEMA officials during the Reagan years were surprisingly optimistic about nuclear Armageddon. “You know, it’s an enormous gigantic explosion,” FEMA’s head of civil defense, William Chipman, said in one interview. “But it’s still an explosion and just as if a shell went off down the road, you’d rather be lying down than sitting up, and you’d rather be in a foxhole than lying down. It’s the same thing.”
Nationally, FEMA estimated that the efforts, given three or four days warning, would save about 80 to 85 percent of the US population—roughly 15 to 20 percent of the population, planners estimated, would die simply because they refused to evacuate or because they couldn’t evacuate, “the sick, the disabled, and handicapped, people with mental problems, alcoholics, drug addicts, and some of the elderly lonely.”
Even the evacuation of major cities like New York City were carefully planned. “Nobody’s suggesting you could move New York City in 15 minutes. That’s stupid,” Reagan’s FEMA chief, Louis Giuffrida, explained. “But we could do New York if we had a plan in place; we could do New York in five days, a week.”
However impractical in reality, there was no faulting the level of detail of the 152-page plan for evacuating New York, which included both a primary plan and 11 alternatives. Each of the five boroughs would rely on different transit modes to evacuate over the course of precisely 3.3 days. Everyone was to flee to “host areas” within 400 miles of the Big Apple. The per-hour capacity of each road out of New York had been carefully calculated; prepositioned bulldozers would help ensure smooth travel, quickly removing disabled automobiles. More than 4.8 million “carless” New Yorkers would be evacuated by subway, train, ferry, barge, cruise ship, and by civilian and commercial aircraft, as well as by more than 20,000 bus trips. Some 75,000 Manhattan residents would travel up the Hudson to Saratoga using three round-trips of five requisitioned Staten Island ferries. Another 300,000 Manhattan residents would travel by subway to Hoboken and be loaded into boxcars for the trip to upstate New York near Syracuse.
As evacuees were flooding into their new “host area,” construction crews—some of them made up of paroled prisoners—would be hard at work transforming the preidentified buildings into fallout shelters, boarding up windows as dump trucks delivered load after load of dirt, and bulldozers and front-end loaders piled the dirt up against the walls; work crews were to spread dirt over building roofs to the required depth using forklifts or bucket brigades. Extensive surveys, physical inventories, and “cubic yards per hour” calculations by FEMA and its predecessors had shown that most parts of the country possessed sufficient heavy equipment to construct and fortify adequate shelters within the three-day time window.
Each host area was expected to absorb five times its normal peacetime population in evacuees and, after registering, all evacuees would be directed to and housed in the various government, community, or commercial buildings identified by the FBI in Project 908. Local families in the “host areas” were to be encouraged to take in relocated strangers as well. “Your neighbors who have evacuated their homes need your help,” FEMA’s preprinted literature explained. “Volunteer now to bring a family to live with you.”