FEMA bunker in Bothell ready for disaster

BOTHELL — It was built to withstand a nuclear bomb.

The walls are up to 18 inches thick. More than 450 tons of reinforced steel and 4,000 cubic yards of concrete protect the underground building.

Today, the former Cold War fallout shelter in Bothell is used to manage the federal government’s emergency response to natural disasters in the Pacific Northwest.

When major disasters strike in Washington, Alaska, Oregon or Idaho, the Federal Emergency Management Agency coordinates its response from the building off 228th Street that is a concrete bunker surrounded by a chain-link fence and dotted with antennas.

On Thursday, officials opened the doors to the bunker for the first time to the media to show the public what they do year-round to prepare for disasters.

Above ground, they showed off tricked-out RVs stocked full of sophisticated communication equipment and high-powered generators. Below the concrete, they demonstrated advanced electronics and a team ready to tackle whatever natural disaster comes this way.

When state and local officials are overwhelmed during a disaster, they call on the federal government to step in and help, said Susan Reinertson, the administrator of the four-state region.

“We can’t make victims whole, but we can help them on the road to recovery,” she said.

After the December floods, the agency helped individuals and local governments in Snohomish County with more than $2.5 million in disaster assistance.

FEMA also helped Snohomish County after the Election Day floods of 2006 that caused an estimated $28.9 million in damage to homes, businesses and government property.

In the past 15 years, during 26 disasters in the four-state area, more than 100,000 households have received more than $160 million in help.

Still, the federal agency was widely criticized after its 2005 response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

“Our mission hasn’t changed, but we’ve improved the way we do our business,” Reinertson said. “We’re doing a lot more on planning and protecting.”

About 100 people work in the Bothell offices. Some manage programs to lower the risk of damage from disasters; others prepare response plans.

Hundreds more are on stand-by when disasters strike.

In the regional response coordination center, a team monitors giant TV screens that keep tabs on anything that could go wrong.

It’s in this nerve center where officials would gather to manage catastrophic events.

“When things are going on, decision makers have the best data to make quick decisions,” said Lon Biasco, the disaster operation division director for the region.

Similar hubs exist around the country to manage problems when they occur.

Federal officials currently are helping people in Florida recover from torrential floods caused by Tropical Storm Fay.

The best prevention for a disaster is good preparation, officials said.

As summer begins to wind down, it’s a good time for families to review their disaster plans, Reinertson said.

They should have supplies ready in case of a flood or earthquake, the most likely disasters to strike Snohomish County, she said.

At the Bothell facility, it appears the federal government is well on its way to having a ready stockpile.

Standing in front of a giant mobile generator capable of powering an office building, Lee Champagne proudly showed off some of FEMA’s fleet of vehicles.

Champagne runs the Mobile Emergency Response Support detachment for the Northwest and West Coast. He rallied to Chehalis last December when floodwaters stranded the southern Washington town.

“We have all the toys,” he said “Whatever we need to operate in a federal disaster.”

Reporter Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3437 or jholtz@heraldnet.com.

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