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Richmond Times Dispatch (Virginia) March 25, 2003

Secure, Even If Not Secret;

Post-9/11, Shelters Get Some Attention

By Kiran Krishnamurthy, Times-Dispatch Staff Writer

Vice President Dick Cheney, long absent from public view, emerged on a Sunday talk show and from limousines as war with Iraq loomed.

Where had he been?

News reports had him holed up at various times in secure locations, along with other essential personnel as part of "shadow government" operations in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Underground bunkers, many of which were built to withstand nuclear attack during the Cold War, are scattered in the mountains and foothills outside the nation's capital, including in Virginia.

Over the decades, the subterranean shelters have attained a sort of mythic status, and the events of 9/11 refocused attention on their existence.

Cheney said the Secret Service whisked him to a bunker under the White House as President Bush crisscrossed the country aboard Air Force One. Leaders of Congress were taken to other undisclosed locations.

Many of the storied government-relocation centers are known to locals and have been written about previously.

*****

One of the most intriguing bunkers is believed to be beneath Mount Weather, along the boundary between Clarke and Loudoun counties. The Federal Emergency Management Agency's Mount Weather Emergency Assistance Center for disaster-relief operations sits above ground at the site.

The underground shelter includes a hospital, crematorium, dining and recreation areas, sleeping quarters, a power plant and 20 office buildings, some of them three stories tall, according to GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington-based defense research group.

By other accounts, the bunker has a spring-fed lake large enough for water-skiing and a 5-foot-thick blastproof door that takes up to 15 minutes to open or close. The facility is designed to accommodate several thousand people, with cots for the majority but private sleeping quarters for the president, Cabinet members and Supreme Court justices, according to GlobalSecurity.org.

FEMA acknowledges the agency supports continuity-of-government programs but would not offer specifics.

Matthew Devost, president of Terrorism Research Center Inc. in Northern Virginia, said the success of such relocation facilities does not depend entirely on secrecy.

The bunkers are designed to withstand attack and typically are in isolated areas, giving those guarding the facilities ample view of approaching threats.

"If it's been disclosed, its capability still is not diminished," Devost said.

*****

One of the more famous bunkers is in West Virginia, under the posh Greenbrier hotel. Hotel officials denied its existence when it was revealed to the public in 1992 by The Washington Post. Three years later, the hotel opened the bunker for public tours.

Dubbed "Project Greek Island," the 112,000-square-foot facility was designed to house members of Congress. The bunker reportedly still is available for government use. But John Nemcik, a Greenbrier tour guide, said last week, "There's no such plan at this time."

Over the years, other bunkers have been decommissioned.

Until 1992, a Federal Reserve electronic-transfer facility built into the side of Mount Pony in Culpeper County served as a relocation shelter, according to the Brookings Institution.

In 1997, Congress authorized renovation of Mount Pony to archive movie, television and recorded-sound collections from the Library of Congress. The conversion is not yet known to have been completed.

Completed in 1969, the 140,000-square-foot bunker is built of foot-thick, steel-reinforced concrete. Lead-lined shutters could be dropped to shield the windows of the semirecessed shelter, which is covered by as much as 4 feet of dirt.

The facility was designed to support an emergency staff of 540 people for 30 days. Freeze-dried foods were kept on site. Private wells were to provide uncontaminated water. Other features include an incinerator, cold storage for bodies unable to be buried promptly, an indoor pistol range, and a helicopter-landing pad.

The Federal Reserve once stored several billion dollars worth of U.S. currency at Mount Pony, according to a Brookings paper. The money was to be used to replenish currency supplies east of the Mississippi River after a nuclear attack.

Devost said he does not believe the Mount Pony site has been reactivated as a bunker. The guardhouse at the foot of the facility stood empty last week, its gates closed.

Several area residents declined to say much about the facility. Asked if he had seen any activity there recently, a longtime resident who frequents the hillside said, "No, I think it's dormant."

A moment later he added, "I wouldn't tell you if I did see anything."


Copyright 2003, Richmond Newspapers, Inc.