Superstorm Sandy: Preparing for the worst in a blast-proof bunker 40ft below ground

Dark clouds over Manhattan as Hurricane Sandy advances towards the east coast of the US. Picture: Getty
Dark clouds over Manhattan as Hurricane Sandy advances towards the east coast of the US. Picture: Getty
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AT THE Cold War nuclear bunker serving as this state’s hurricane HQ, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) predicted that one million houses and businesses could lose power in the storm.

An hour later, I was one of them, as a giant pine tree crashed through the electricity cables, narrowly missing my sister-in-law’s house. A few minutes later, a second blocked the drive.

For anyone used to Scotland’s brand of horizontal rain, the weather in this part of New England yesterday morning, at first, seemed little more than blustery drizzle, moving to rain.

But with the looming threat of the “Frankenstorm”, people here were hunkering down, with schools and many shops closed, coastal areas braced for flooding and wet roads mostly empty of drivers. The forecast was for 75mph wind gusts and heavy rain.

“The Bunker”, as it is known, is a blast-proof operations centre 40ft below ground in Framingham, on the outskirts of Boston. It was the built under a 1960s programme launched by President John F Kennedy to ensure government functioned in the event of a nuclear attack.

There is accommodation for 300 people and the structure was built to withstand a 20-megaton bomb, with angled entrance ramps to prevent radioactive fall-out entering.

The scene yesterday was, indeed, like something out of the Cold War, with National Guard officers in combat fatigues among about 60 staff from fire, emergency and utility agencies monitoring events in a situation room with large-screen trackers of the hurricane’s path.

There has been as much hype as gale-force winds swirling around Hurricane Sandy. “Apparently, the winds have been strong enough to move Donald Trump’s hair,” joked Jon Keller of WBZ.TV, one of a string of local stations broadcasting live briefings from the centre.

But with memories of the devastating hurricane that tore through Massachusetts in 1938, and of the political stakes for anyone misjudging a weather disaster with a looming election, no-one was taking it lightly. Last year, a heavy snowstorm cut power to some areas of the state for a week or more, causing fury over the time it took to clear debris, and power outages were being repeated yesterday.

From President Barack Obama to Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick (a fellow Democrat) and Senator Scott Brown (a Republican), politicians were keen to show they were on the ball.

With forecasts of a “high wind event” and a coastal storm surge hitting at high tide, voluntary evacuation orders were in effect for low-lying towns. Public transport in Boston was shut down at 2pm.

Peter Judge, press officer for MEMA, said there was concern of flooding along the whole of the Massachusetts coast.

“The other thing, from the state-wide perspective, is the strength of the wind to take out a lot of power lines,” he said. “We could easily have a million customers – I mean households and businesses, not individuals – without power if this storm is as big as is seen.”

The entrance to the bunker has a table loaded with an ideal “hurricane disaster kit”. Items range from batteries and evaporated milk to vermicelli pasta and honey nutcereal.

At Tilly’s, a family grocery store open since the 1930s, people have been flocking to stock up. “I’ve sold probably 80 propane tanks,” said owner Rick Cicciarelli. “They are just buying everything.”

His regular customers included Henry Grady, 78. He still remembers the tree that fell across the street in the 1938 hurricane. “We have pretty much done what we have to do in the next few days,” he said.

“Get batteries. Bought in lunches. If it stays in this category, it’s wind and rain.

“It just depends how you look at it, if you are more laid back, or a real panic person. The thing is to be prepared.”

‘Frankenstorm’ made worse by full moon

IT IS being billed as the Frankenstorm, a powerful storm whose impact is likely to made significantly worse by a full moon.

As Hurricane Sandy approaches land, the warm moist air circulating within it will meet cold air spreading south into the United States from Canada. This provides the potential for the storm to develop and produce severe winds, heavy rain, flooding and even snow on its north and west flanks as it hits land.

However, higher tides brought by a full moon are compounding the threat, leading Louis Uccellini, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to describe the conditions as the “worst-case scenario”.

With the moon in its full phase late last night, high tides along the eastern seaboard of the US were expected to be 20 per cent higher than normal.

When the storm surge of Sandy – wind-blown water pushing up against and over the coastline – is added to that, forecasters are predicting extensive flooding to low-lying areas, in particular New York City, Long Island and northern New Jersey.