Somewhere, there is a sprawling system of government storage facilities so secret that the American people can’t be told where they are, or what is kept in them.
But it is clear they are gearing up for something. These secret facilities are apparently in place to support the logistics of a response to an unprecedented disaster the likes of which no one has ever seen, or perhaps even conceived of in this country.
What happens if a mass pandemic sweeps through American cities – an avian flu, or an outbreak of a laboratory created disease? How many millions of people would be wiped out within a matter of days? What happens if terrorists deploy a biological or chemical weapon? Will quarantine zones be necessary? Will martial law be imposed?
It is hard to say, but one thing is certain: the federal government has what is surely the largest stockpile of emergency equipment and medical supplies that has ever been assembled.
How it might be utilized is a different matter.
NPR did an expose on the fascinating secret stockpile you likely never knew about:
When Greg Burel tells people he’s in charge of some secret government warehouses, he often gets asked if they’re like the one at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark… “Well, no, not really,” says Burel, director of a program called the Strategic National Stockpile at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Thousands of lives might someday depend on this stockpile, which holds all kinds of medical supplies that the officials would need in the wake of a terrorist attack with a chemical, biological or nuclear weapon.
The location of these warehouses is secret. How many there are is secret. (Although a former government official recently said at a public meeting that there are six.) And exactly what’s in them is secret.
“We have the capability, if something bad happens, that we can intervene in a positive way, but then we don’t ever want to have to do that. So it’s kind of a strange place,” says Burel. “But we would be foolish not to prepare for those events that we could predict might happen.”
The inventory includes millions of doses of vaccines against bioterrorism agents like smallpox, antivirals in case of a deadly flu pandemic, medicines used to treat radiation sickness and burns, chemical agent antidotes, wound care supplies, IV fluids and antibiotics.
The results can’t be discussed publicly, says Casagrande, but “one thing we can say is that across the variety of threats that we examined, the Strategic National Stockpile has the adequate amount of materials in it and by and large the right type of thing.”
The federal government is pouring more than half a billion dollar per year into this massive and unprecedented emergency stockpile system, and has built up a considerable arsenal of medicines and countermeasures since the system was established in 1999.
A huge bureaucracy oversees its acquisitions, maintenance and plans for various types of emergencies.
The program director told NPR the stockpile is valued at about $7 billion dollars.
Its agency partners span the ranks of the Department of Defense, the Centers for Disease Control, FEMA, Homeland Security, the Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health and many other agencies.
The feds call it PHEMCE – but there isn’t a whole lot of publicly available information beyond the basics on its website:
The Public Health Emergency Medical Countermeasures Enterprise (PHEMCE) coordinates Federal efforts to enhance chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats (CBRN) and emerging infectious diseases (EID) preparedness from a medical countermeasure (MCM) perspective. The PHEMCE is led by the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) and includes three primary HHS internal agency partners: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH), as well as several interagency partners: the Department of Defense (DoD), the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
It constitutes a major component of the national response and continuity of government (CoG) plans.
Of course, the federal government plans for a large scale emergency go far, far beyond just supplies, but it gives an indication of the size and scope of their plans.
But in real life scenarios, such as Hurricane Katrina or the wildfires in Bastrop, TX, the government has proven that is it more likely to bungle the situation, while hampering responses from local rescue workers.
It is unclear whether or not the federal government could actually be effective in a pandemic situation, though that is largely the (stated) purpose of these secret facilities – and the massive budgets that sustain them:
That’s because getting stuff out of the stockpile to the people who would need it is a major challenge. Imagine if there’s a major anthrax attack, and there’s just 48 hours to get prophylactic antibiotics to more than a million people.
“It is not going to be easy or simple to put medicines in the hand of everybody who wants it,” says O’Toole.
This collection of stuff could help after a variety of disasters, and it’s designed to be delivered to a city or town within hours. Mabry shows me how the outside of each container has a pouch. “That has the information that anyone would need if they were to receive this, so they could very easily identify what is in this,” she explains.
The feds are attempting to expand coordination with local and state officials, and execute more drill scenarios, particularly in the areas most likely to be affected if something big were to happen.
Nevertheless, a well coordinated response is anything but guaranteed, and real world situations are often quite messy.
Things may be all the worse if it were a threat that has never before played out in a major way.
All the more reason to prepare your own family for the worst case scenario. Keep all the necessary medication you might need (particularly prescription meds and vital supplies like insulin, if there are diabetics in your group, for instance) in your own personal supplies.
Despite massive budgets and stockpiles of every conceivable medicine, vaccine or antidote that can be expected to surface in an emergency, there is no guarantee that any of it would reach you or your loved ones in time. And who is to say that they would share?
Stay prepared, and keep watch of what may be coming.