In 2011, a staffer at Washingtonian found a government ID in a Metro parking garage and gave it to Garrett M. Graff (the magazine’s editor-in-chief at the time) to track down its owner. “Since I reported about that world, he figured I’d know what to do with it,” Graff says.
Graff immediately noticed something strange.
“The back of the ID had these evacuation instructions on it. And so I got on Google Maps and followed the instructions and they led to a road that very clearly went into the side of a mountain, and you can see on the Google satellite view big concrete bunker doors.”
That discovery inspired Graff to comb through newly declassified documents to learn more about the U.S. government’s plans in the event of a nuclear war or other catastrophe. His research culminated in the new book “Raven Rock: The Story of the U.S. Government’s Secret Plan to Save Itself — While the Rest of Us Die.” (Graff will discuss the book at Politics and Prose on Saturday.)
At first, the government didn’t plan to let “the rest of us die.”
“In the early 1950s, the government really hoped and believed it would be able to save most Americans,” Graff says. As bombs became more destructive, “plans and ambitions gradually shrunk until, realistically, the best they could hope to do is save the senior leadership.”
Drills and disasters have shown that the federal government is too complex and unwieldy to pluck out of D.C. by helicopter and set up in an underground bunker — though that was, and still is, the basic plan, Graff says.
One such shelter is the mountain fortress Graff tracked down: Raven Rock. Here’s more on it, plus other tidbits from doomsday scenarios past and present.
This compound, carved out of a mountain near the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, contains several freestanding, multistory buildings (on giant, shock-absorbing springs) for a total of 900,000 square feet of office space. It has its own subterranean water supply, too. Raven Rock is where top government and military officials would hide out in the event of a major attack on Washington, D.C.; it was reportedly one of the “undisclosed locations” former Vice President Dick Cheney worked from in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Another major underground government complex, Mount Weather has been in use since the 1950s. Located at the border of Loudoun and Clarke counties in Virginia, the 600,000-square-foot bunker inside the mountain was once (and still may be) the official evacuation site for Supreme Court justices, documents such as the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, and the National Gallery of Art’s most valuable paintings.
E-4B ‘doomsday planes’
These custom-built 747s, also known as “Air Force One When It Counts,” are flying war rooms that follow the president when he travels internationally. When POTUS is stateside, one plane sits ready on a runway at a Nebraska military base, “fully staffed with battle planners and war planners and meteorologists and anything else you might need to run a nuclear war,” Graff says. The planes are protected from electromagnetic pulse attacks with a fine wire mesh, and they can unfurl a 5-mile-long wire that allows communication with nuclear submarines.
In the 1960s, the U.S. government distributed 150 million pounds of wheat crackers and biscuits to fallout shelters across America. Packages are still routinely found unopened in civic building basements, and apparently they don’t taste great. “I did actually find on eBay a box of them, but I haven’t been brave enough to try them in part because I have watched enough YouTube videos of other people trying them to know how disgusting they actually are,” Graff says.
In the late 1970s, the D.C. mayor’s emergency control center at 300 Indiana Ave. NW had a Plexiglas-shielded button that, when pressed, triggered “Emer-zak,” the broadcast of emergency messages to lobbies, elevators and anywhere else served by the Muzak system.