Friday, October 12, 2012

FEMA's Logistical Firepower: A Tour of the Atlanta Distribution Center

If you took the house I grew up in—basement, two floors, attic, three bedrooms, fireplace, front steps, a regular middle-class American home—and put it in the FEMA Atlanta Distribution Center, which Summit 5 toured this morning, you could tuck it away in a corner of one of their gigantic storage rooms and quite possibly never find it again. Hyperbole? Of course. But not by a whole hell of a lot. FEMA’s 406,000-square-foot Death Star of a warehouse is lined with endless twenty-foot-high shelves, packed with disaster relief materials and office supplies. According to their painted-on numbers, there are at least one hundred and seventeen loading/unloading docks where supplies can be hauled onto tractor-trailers, a dozen of which sit outside. To make sure that all those supplies stay safe and the Center is able to ship them in a disaster, the building itself is ridiculously reinforced. If you set fire to its specially constructed walls, it would take at least two solid hours to burn through to the supplies inside. And the building as a whole is designed to resist winds of up to 129 miles per hour—a Category 3 hurricane.
This is FEMA’s material muscle. Distribution Centers, scattered around the country and managed by FEMA Headquarters, are where FEMA keeps the supplies it draws upon in times of need. Our guides, Logistics employees who shepherded us through this vast space, told us that the warehouse contains 2.6 million MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). I saw the room where they keep them and I don’t think they’re exaggerating. It was all massive shelves stocked floor-to-ceiling with huge shrinkwrapped cubes made up of 48 MRE smaller boxes (for easy loading and unloading), each one filled with who knows how many individual meals. FEMA typically relies on volunteer agencies and state & local governments to take care of the immediate needs—food, shelter, clothing—of disaster-affected citizens, but this is a just-in-case reserve. Numberless cases of bottled water, all different brands. Tarps for the roofs of damaged homes, twenty boxes per shrinkwrapped stack. Huge rolls of blankets. Medical equipment belonging to Health & Human Services stored in long steel boxes on one side wall. Even—I swear—H1N1 facemasks, labeled “N-95 Respirators”.
The Logistics branch (inevitably known as Log) is responsible for setting up Joint Field Offices, the statewide nerve centers from which FEMA and state officials manage the disaster response process. Their job is to essentially take empty buildings, abandoned Wal-Marts and the like, and convert them into fully functioning offices. In seventy-two hours or less. It’s absolutely impossible, but they do it anyway, Seabee-style. The Distribution Center is where they apparently store all that office material. We walked (inside the yellow lines, so as to reduce our chances of getting hit by a forklift) past cabinets, tables, IT equipment of all kinds, cubicle walls, office supplies and herds of rolling chairs. Over in a relatively tiny corner (a mere 2,800 square feet) sat Region 4’s own supplies: extension cords and fax machines, printers and ink, fire extinguishers and trash can liners and UPS sleeves. You could lose the Ark of the Covenant in that area alone and nobody would ever find it until the next hurricane hit.
The most amazing part of the whole place, though, was the machinery & maintenance room. FEMA apparently has its own stock of generators, scores of them sitting in nice straight rows, hulking green boxes that looked like video-game bosses. Markings on the side specified their generation power: 35 kilowatts, 54, 60, 72, even one white monster the size of a Volkswagen with “160 KW” stenciled in black. Other, smaller generators came with their own portable lighting systems, four lights on a telescoping pole that goes straight up in the air, complete with wires and levers and hand-cranks to get them up to their full size. Small FEMA personal transport vehicles abounded: green golf carts, orange-and-black buggies, a random man-sized tricycle sitting next to a stack of orange crates.

My mind nearly exploded with sheer cool when I saw the Urban Search & Rescue open-top vehicles, six-wheeled camouflage-colored monsters equipped with thick off-road tires. And that’s not even mentioning the Mobile Command Operations Vehicle, one of twenty-one FEMA buses that function as command centers in the field, up on a giant mechanical lift for routine maintenance. (Just so we’re clear, that’s a full-size bus. Inside a building. And it took up a tiny fraction of the available space.) The MCOVs have a built-in generator, phone and Internet service, twelve laptops and workstations and a satellite dish on top. And in case that wasn’t awesome enough, the walls can slide out if the workers inside need more room, or bird-wing out into roofs that can shelter other workers sitting outside. The one we toured sported a fridge/freezer, TVs, comfy chairs for the driver and shotgun, and (for some reason) three pool noodles sitting in the back. I can only assume they use those to beat on underperforming employees. (Only a joke, FEMA overlords. Please don’t make that come true.)
So that’s a Distribution Center. According to, there are four more scattered around the continental U.S., plus three offshore (Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam). This is apparently what Logistics does during a disaster: trucks haul their massive asses up to those loading docks (seriously, 117 of them, plus several larger doors where buses can drive into the building), where the corps of FEMA forklifts deposits box after box of supplies and materials before they head off for parts unknown. This gargantuan apparatus is how FEMA gets its supplies to disaster survivors who need them, and is it ever impressive. I’ve always been a fan of huge amounts of heavy machinery, but even for me, the scope of FEMA’s mechanical and logistical might is staggering.


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AMS Valencia said...

their distribution center is gigantic
good thing you didn't get lost :)

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