Do you know who your neighbors are?
How about the neighbors who inhabit Bothell’s bunker, located at 130 228th St. S.W.? That’s right. Bothell has an underground bunker, built in the cold-war era of the 1960s that measures 120 by 140 feet, contains 450 tons of steel reinforcement and the walls and roof range from 12 to 36 inches thick. The bunker now serves as permanent headquarters for Region 10’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a division of the Department of Homeland Security. Region 10, or Region X as it often appears, includes Idaho, Oregon, Alaska and Washington.
What you see from the street is … very little. The bunker area and parking lot are surrounded by fencing and secured gates. Inside the building, after going through an airport-type security check, you walk down a blue- and beige-speckled carpeted hallway with picture-lined walls. The hallway gently slopes leading to a maze of more halls (at least it felt that way to me, one who loses direction easily) with several offices, meeting room and a real “made-for TV” central command post, called the Regional Response Coordination Center.
All of this Regional Administrator Susan Reinertson refers to as a “no sun zone.”
FEMA mans the bunker 12 hours each day, five days a week, with plans for coverage 24/7. Emergencies include floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and fires, all well known to us living in the Northwest. What certainly comes to mind are the recent Chehalis floods, fires in eastern Washington and Idaho, active volcanoes in Alaska, Mt. St. Helens and, who knows when Mt. Rainier will blow its top.
“Region X has had 26 disasters in the past 15 years,” says Charlie Axton, director of the Disaster Assistance Division.
FEMA focuses on planning for disasters, preparedness, response and recovery through its various departments: Mitigation and Mobile Emergency Response Support (MERS), Disaster Operations, National Preparedness, Disaster Assistance and Grant Programs.
“The purpose of the Mitigation Division is to put Recovery out of business,” says Mark Carey, director of Region X’s Mitigation Division.
Their mission reads in part, “Our goal is to create safer, disaster-resistant communities by reducing loss of life and property; enabling individuals to recover more rapidly from floods and other disasters; and lessening the financial impact of disasters on the Nation.”
The Mobile Emergency Response Support (MERS) consists of five, self-supporting mobile units that provide communications during a disaster. These vehicles, containing satellite-based Internet, telephone systems, televisions and computers, are first to arrive on the scene.
“This vehicle provides command and control for all teams — fire, EMS and volunteer agencies,” says Gerald Kuntz, traffic-management specialist.
Plenty of activity
The Disaster Operations Division consists of the Regional Response Coordination Center that houses 31 stations. The room becomes a beehive of activity during a disaster with up to 44 positions staffed.
“Each response is tailored to the specific disaster being supported, so the actual agencies — or Emergency Support Functions (ESFs) — would vary, ranging from the Department of Transportation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and American Red Cross to Department of Health and Human Services, Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Agriculture and Department of Energy,” says Mike Howard, external-affairs officer.
He adds, “The operational capability is excellent, although the space is small.”
In this center, Google Earth Pro shows events like approaching Atlantic hurricanes on the East Coast and tracking devices that monitor trucks carrying commodities headed to a disaster zone. It’s also where daily situational awareness reports are issued on any potential dangers.
National Preparedness Division Director Pat Massey says, “Our goal is to build a disaster-resilient society.”
He adds, “The preparedness cycle consists of planning, organizing, exercising (training), evaluations and improving.”
Training exercises occurred in Seattle in 2003 and in Portland in 2007.
And there’s the Disaster Assistance and Grants Division.
“After a disaster, the local government responds, then the state, then FEMA, in that order,” says Charlie Axton, director of the Disaster Assistance Division.
FEMA assistance consists of shelter, food, bulk distribution, emergency first aid and welfare information. They also coordinate volunteer agencies, help people register for disaster assistance and coordinate folks with engineering backgrounds to assist in the evaluation of damaged roads and bridges.
In addition, FEMA provides grant application assistance to eligible applicants and grants to states, tribes, local governments, fire departments and private-sector groups.
Sometimes, there’s military involvement.
Lt. Colonel Sean Eaton serves as Region X defense coordinator, whose mission it is to support FEMA. For disasters like the bridge collapse in Minnesota, Defense Department groups will be called upon to help.
“Although their primary mission is national defense, they will also support domestic response in disasters,” says Eaton.
It’s the Secretary of Defense’s decision to put National Guard troops into a disaster area, as was the case in the California fires.
Even if there are no West Coast disasters, FEMA Region X is also called upon to assist other regions around the country, like the August flooding in Florida from Tropical Storm Fay.
That’s daily life in the Bothell bunker. We’re lucky to have such good, hard-working neighbors.
For information, visit www.fema.gov.