There are other, smaller piles of rubble around the country that other task forces use to simulate the real thing, but much of their inspiration comes from Disaster City. Brian Giachino, the director of Iowa’s Task Force 1, has had his team creating rubble and honing canine searches ever since he first visited Disaster City in 2004. “Ours is not on the scale of Disaster City,” he says. “That place is truly unique.”The facility is also a command center for real-life disaster response. McKee and his crew are in constant contact with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to dispatch search-and-rescue teams. Even on the morning Kelly is rescued, as TX TF-1 members train, quiet yet important people with telephones for hands sit inside a deceptively unexciting room called the coordination center deploying other TX TF-1 rescuers to North Dakota, where record-setting floods have left tens of thousands homeless.
Just like in the military, Disaster City trainees often head from their apocalyptic boot camp into real situations. Last May, after a mile-wide tornado slashed through Parkersburg, Iowa, leaving nine dead and eight times that injured, Giachino and his team were on the scene. “I just did what I learned in Texas,” he says. “It has the logistics of rescue down better than anybody, so I used their model. We arrived in the darkness and rain and said, ‘Let’s roll this baby out just the way we did it in Texas.’ And we did, and it was the logistics that helped us respond, I’d say, almost perfectly.”
The need for expertly trained responders like Giachino has never been greater. Bennett calls emergency response a growth industry, and indeed, calamity is a burgeoning market. In 2008, cyclones, hurricanes, earthquakes and other planetary convulsions killed an estimated 236,000 people, by the United Nations’s count, making it one of the deadliest years on record for natural disasters. This year hasn’t been much better so far, with wildfires in California, earthquakes in Italy and floods in the Dakotas. Even now, as hundreds of employees and trainees prepare for the fake Big One, McKee and his team stand ready for when the real deal hits in Dyersburg, Tennessee, along the New Madrid fault line. The region is the highest earthquake risk in the U.S. outside the West Coast right now, and some seismologists say it’s got a feverish past-due timeline. By rights, it should have happened yesterday.
Like Kelly, I’m among the victims today. A few hours before the simulation, I watch unpaid people being “moulaged,” or gore-ified by makeup artists. They use vampire blood, Halloween leftovers on sale. They make chicken bones and turkey bones and rebar pieces pop out of legs and rib cages. Rebar is big here, because that, along with glass shards, is what’s most dangerous when a building collapses. It’s real enough, brutal enough—glinting metal jutting from plaid shirts—to give the rescue workers the feel of an actual situation, so they have to triage the conditions to see who’s in the most critical shape.
One official reviews an exercise action plan that lists all the volunteers, their interests and capabilities. Some of them say they would enjoy hiding in a rubble pile for hours. They want to be the most difficult rescues; they want to be trapped in the dark and the dust, for the thrill and the sense of helping in a more dramatic way. Then there are the people who just want to hand out water, watch from the sidelines. But the reason they’re all here, any of them will tell you, is for the spirit of it, to be part of something serious and noble.
Before you get to the disaster, you must be processed and assigned a role at the Gateway, the hangar-like hub, which is effectively a big rescue warehouse where they stash the equipment, the prepackaged hazmat sheets and the stacks of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). Next to the dusty packages of Tuna, the Pasta with Garden Vegetable is a newer one, a hotter ticket.
An army of rescue workers unpacks everything and hands out the gear, the jackhammers, gloves, hydraulic cords, wool blankets, shovels, the radios with the screw-on antennas. Here is where you learn that quickness in disaster is not of the essence. It can’t be. The rescuers don’t just gallop out like wild horses. This morning they’re preparing the way they would for a regular deployment. There are people in imposing uniforms trooping about, dogs, and tables of Dr Pepper and breakfast tacos and American flags.
It’s time for action. I’m beached on a rock outside a single-family home across from a pancaked House of Pancakes. On the corner is a mini-mall with a Maytag shop, beaten to a heap. Power lines are down, one of which speared a 1985 Cadillac sedan. Smashed glass shines on the grass like shallow water. Volunteer victims burrow in holes, in buildings and cars. Some will take naps while they wait to be rescued. Others will scream the whole unnerving time. It will get to me, no matter how much I try to remember this is a simulation. That’s the idea.
The man in charge of organizing and rallying the victims is Smith, the public information officer, who is also known as Disaster Smitty. A former Navy military police officer, Smith is Terminator-size, with his pants tucked into his boots, and he’s screaming at the victims. “All right, guys! Act it up!” he shouts, the veins in his neck bulging with the strain.
There is no Animatronic shaking of the ground, which is a bit of a letdown. You must only imagine that the earthquake has just happened. But then, more quietly than the real thing and more methodically, Disaster City rises up and is born into the horror it was engineered to be.
First come the EMTs, a volunteer group of students from Texas A&M, whose role is an extension of their university training. They’re drawn like sharks to whoever is leaking the most blood. Medics take pulses, carry away the worst-off, and attach victim cards to the wrists of the rest to catalog survivors. There is the haunting Level 0, a black bar with a shovel, which means the person is dead. There is Level I, with an image of a rabbit, which means rush to help. Level II, the turtle, is noncritical, and Level III, the luckiest one, shows an ambulance with a slash through it; you get dealt this card, and you might be able to walk away.
Next come the rescuers, the particular team of TF-1 guys who are training today. They are in gray shirts and navy pants, descending in an orderly fashion from red trucks. There is a slow-motion drama to their sudden appearance. The head of the EMTs confers with the head of the rescuers, and they pass off information reports—where they found and treated victims in plain sight and, eerily, where they can hear people crying but cannot get to them. That’s where the rescuers come in: pulling victims out from impossible places.single page
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