With an ensemble of Russian tanks thundering toward the White House and Donald Trump’s planned visit to Britain just days away, life in a locked-down downtown Washington is already living up to its reputation as the most foreboding of American capital cities.
Security is tight all over Washington, and the nation’s capital has been fighting a terror threat that has itself been terrorizing the public since 9/11. The Blue Line subway that runs through the heart of downtown went down this week for three hours after bombs were discovered on two trains. Police officers have had their guns drawn and some soldiers on duty at the National Mall scoped out their next target. With more than 3,000 American troops stationed in Europe, from Estonia to Poland, and expanded deployments to the Baltics, it’s one of the most active post-9/11 deployments of American troops in Europe.
But while the American capital is most ready for its toughest battle in decades, when next leaders of the free world face off, Churchill’s secret bunker could also be ready.
Thanks to a two-and-a-half-month renovation, the former floor of Daughters of the British Empire Building is now the official location of the government’s underground lock-down in case a war breaks out. Built in 1939, its original ceiling began to collapse in 1986, leaving the unoccupied rooms locked and accessible only by intricate tunnels, accessible only from underneath the building. The United States decided to renovate the buildings and underground last December to cut down on violence along the Potomac River and help improve the emergency response times of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“This is right at the middle of Washington, there’s a horrible amount of traffic going by, it’s pretty secure as far as you’re concerned,” said Tom McClain, the construction manager on the project and a former U.S. Navy machinist. “You could walk down the hall to the FBI’s office in the basement and you would be right in there.”
Inside the three tunnels, four layers of fortified doors allow the construction team to move debris, cables and oxygen tanks into any of them. It’s a tight, slightly underlit structure with exterior doors that workers had to scratch to get into, and all the windows are in clear plastic.
The first floor contains a business center with a health and fitness center. The second floor, now the main office, is offices for FEMA and the Commerce Department. The third floor of a building that closed in the 1980s houses additional agencies that help in nuclear emergencies and for emergencies on the Potomac River. The only element on the four floors above the basement is the ongoing renovation work for the fourth floor, which includes an access center for the mine rescue teams. The basement was part of the original building but closed down because of the threat of a nuclear attack.
When the military decided to renovate the building last December, McClain says the remaining rooms on the second floor were the last holdout with no glass windows.
The rooms featured glass showers for making hot and cold water and emergency lights on the ceiling. The cavernous underground workrooms were named after lucky items inside the room for the bunker, including a sickle-shaped strip of wood. The rooms had utilities and wiring installed since they were created back in 1939.
McClain says a tunnel was constructed underneath the administration section of the building for potential evacuation. The system, which cost about $2 million for the two-and-a-half-month renovation, allowed lights and air conditioning to be turned on and off to give them an underground feel.
Dr. David Genna of the University of Maryland’s Center for Applied Geological Science went inside and said the location for a bunker under the city was unbelievable.
“It was only three blocks from the White House, it was six blocks from Capitol Hill, it was about the same distance from the CIA headquarters as is the residential section of Washington,” he said. “With the vastness of the place, every floor is very unlikely to have any link or any interest in the surface. So there’s lots of things inside that nobody can see.”
Another college geologist said he had never heard of a new bunker being built in Washington like the one being renovated by FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security and other government offices. He predicted the underground will be full of Washington’s kind of activity as a top city for an underground bunker: the Kennedy Center, the nation’s Capitol and the U.S. Supreme Court.