Googling in the Bunker

What I learned about homeland security.

In early November 2001, I was supposed to be in Doha, Qatar, covering the World Trade Organization meetings for Seattle Weekly. Instead, I found myself in an underground complex in Bothell working for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). I was helping staff a temporary command center that had been mobilized in case of another terrorist attack on America. Instead of being a lone freelance reporter in the Middle East on the eve of war, I wound up in about the safest place you could be: a nuclear blast–proof bunker with round-the-clock military guard. The only thing missing was Dick Cheney.

So how did I get there?

This was before the formation of the Department of Homeland Security, and the Sept. 11 attacks had occurred less than two months earlier. FEMA played a major role in responding to the disasters in New York and Washington, D.C. Despite my pre–9/11 plans to cover the WTO, I felt compelled to get off my butt and do something. I was between stints as editor of SW, and not working full time. A few days after the attacks, I called FEMA and applied to join a program that supplies manpower when the shit hits the fan, be it an earthquake in Seattle or another Florida hurricane. FEMA counts on trained cadres of on-call professionals to mobilize and respond to disasters when the need arises.

Usually, reservists are sent to help staff disaster field offices. The main task is bureaucratic: to funnel federal aid to those who need it. But in this case, instead of responding to floods in Alaska or a windstorm in Oregon (as I did later), I was called to the regional FEMA headquarters to help out. As the reservist who lived "closest to the flagpole," I was readily available for duty with the added public benefit that FEMA didn't have to reimburse me for mileage. As a rookie, this deployment was a chance to get valuable on-the-job training, even if nothing happened.

What brought us to the bunker was the so-called "West Coast threat." There were "credible" reports—which turned out to be not so credible after all—that terrorists were planning to attack the West Coast. My job was to wait in the bunker with representatives of all the federal agencies you would want to have respond if an attack occurred, and even those you wouldn't think of. (Al Qaeda's struck! Call the Small Business Administration!) My job as a public information officer was to monitor the media for disaster or terrorism-related news. Which makes sense, seeing as how during 9/11, much of our government found out what was going on from CNN. I mostly kept an eye on a bank of television sets and surfed the Web.

It was quiet duty, so quiet that a couple of my bunker mates encouraged me to ease the boredom by tuning one set to a Husky football game. Others used the time to work on "what if" disaster response scenarios. With the Oklahoma City bombing, and now 9/11, FEMA was waking up to the fact that a greater number of future disasters might be man-made.

I spent nearly a week in that bunker. During that time, nothing much happened. In Oregon, a rural sheriff was organizing armed home-guard militias. In San Francisco, troops patrolled the Golden Gate Bridge. The biggest real possible threat was the seismic rumblings at that weapon of mass destruction, Mount St. Helens.

The most exciting thing that happened—other than the fact that, in the end, there was no West Coast terror attack—was another nonevent. One evening, we got a call from the military. They'd heard that a Publisher's Clearing House mailing was about to hit the state's mailboxes, and that it contained white powder. In the wake of the anthrax attacks on Congress, and in an environment of elevated threat, mass hysteria could ensue. Something about the rumor sounded familiar and fishy to me. I began Googling and quickly discovered that the mailing was an urban myth that had been credibly debunked. I relayed this to my boss, who passed it on. With great relief, FEMA could tell the folks at Fort Lewis to stand down.

My boss seemed to feel the call should never have come to us in the first place. The Army should have checked it out first, just like we did. Were we a Google search away from mass panic? Probably not. But I thought of the incident while reading the 9/11 Commission report. In the end, so much depends on so little: a failed conference call with the Federal Aviation Administration, an air traffic controller who looks west for a missing plane instead of east, an airport security guard who "wands" a hijacker, then lets him board anyway. Maybe a TV tuned to a Husky game? For the want of a nail, the kingdom was lost. . . .

No security apparatus in the world can protect us from all the details that conspire to cause our systems to break down. No amount of homeland security spending can give us a fail-safe society.

But the inherent insecurity of our systems is no reason to panic, despite how some might like to politicize fear. One thing that impressed me in that bunker was how many dedicated, invisible resources America has invested in good things, like helping people recover from disaster. For every buck we spend on the military and security, we should also spend a buck on recovery. Human frailty and foibles being what they are, it's dead certain we'll need that help again one day. Our future is in resilience, not perfection.

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