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Before the Storm

Waiting for Isabel in a secured, off-limits, emergency bunker, the hurricane isn’t someone else’s problem.


At 4 p.m. on this Tuesday, there is only one parking lot filled with cars. It’s the one next to the Emergency Operations Center, essentially a bunker built in 1954 to withstand nuclear attack. The walls are made of 15-inch, reinforced concrete. The offset doors are built to withstand the pressure of an atomic bomb, and the ventilation system is equipped with filters that can conceivably remove radioactive particles from the air (or so was the claim in the 1950s).

The Cold War is over. But there is Hurricane Isabel, which is stirring only a modest scare in Richmond two days before its arrival. Winds originally projected at 150 mph have been downgraded to 110 mph, and most expect that the queen of hurricanes will be a more of a princess by the time she graces the capital city. By the time Thursday rolls around, it will probably be just another tropical storm.

Two flights of stairs underground, however, the Emergency Operations Center is bustling. This is disaster-relief headquarters, the place where, say, after a hurricane rips through the state destroying homes and businesses, decisions about who gets what are made. A small group of people cramped around folding tables with metal chairs and laptops decide which jurisdictions will get National Guard troops, emergency helicopters, hazmat teams, Federal Emergency Management Agency workers and even the giant mobile emergency center. There are a dozen or so people here. Isabel is two days away.

“We try to keep up with what’s going on,” says Paul Demm, operations officer for the Virginia Department of Emergency Management and a 25-year veteran of the bunker. The process has gotten a lot smoother in the past few years, he says, because of the technology. “We’re getting much more accurate, timely data coming in,” he says. “We get five-day forecasts now.”

And that means the bunker is hopping two days before the storm hits. Who knows how many of the state’s 140 jurisdictions will be calling, asking for assistance. Every hour, the bunker holds conference calls with local government officials from around the state to assess their needs. It’ll get hot and sweaty in here come Thursday. Today, faces in the bunker show just a dull glisten. Outside all is normal. Thoughts of losing electricity are passing faintly in the warm breeze, surely someone else’s problems.

In the communications room, emergency phones line the walls. There are buttons and keys. There is a phone connected to the White House, U.S. Marines, FEMA, the National Weather Service and the nuclear power plants in North Anna and Surry. Parker Winborne, an operations officer in charge of communications maintenance, says the phones here activate the emergency sirens that alert residents in Surry and North Anna in case of a nuclear emergency — say a terrorist attack or an explosion.

“The actual nuclear power plants can’t activate the sirens,” he says, “but we can.”

In the old days, they used to leave the keys to the emergency phones dangling overhead (a key is needed to unlock the phone). Winborne recalls on one occasion a child getting his hands on one of the keys and setting off the sirens by accident. The keys don’t dangle anymore.

There is every kind of communication device imaginable. “Everything in this room is an emergency circuit,” Winborne says. There’s the weather wire, where severe weather watches and warnings can be sent to the proper localities within about five minutes. There’s the Hurrevac 2000 computer program tracking and projecting the course of Isabel. If everything else fails, there are ham radios in a small room toward the back.

They are ready, even now. At this point, they are just organizing. The officers are veterans when it comes to hurricanes and tornadoes. Winborne remembers being dispatched to Franklin, which was under water after Hurricane Floyd in 1999. That was probably the worst he’s seen. “I remember seeing a dog on top of a bank drive-through,” he says.

Like grizzled rescue workers, the guys joke, a little geekily, about Isabel.

“We could fly kites now,” says one.

“Yeah, into orbit,” another responds.

At noon on Thursday, Isabel is starting to pick up. The rain is coming in sheets; the wind is starting to sporadically whip the trees. Down two flights of stairs in the bunker — there’s a small musty waiting area resembling a basement that now leaks from the rain — workers come and go. There are 50 people packed into the bunker now. The governor stopped by a little earlier to give the group a pep talk. So far, more than 100,000 have lost power, Demm says.

There are little yellow signs hanging from the ceiling marking the different stations inside the bunker, and there are renderings for the new Emergency Operations Center toward the back. The new bunker will be much bigger, about 17,000 square feet compared with the current 2,500 square feet. It will be ready sometime next year.

Dawn Eischen, a public affairs officer, says a groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled for next week. “We’re going to do a ceremony and everything,” she says.

Outside, the rain comes down in torrents. Isabel is coming. S

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