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Inside The Government's Apocalypse-Ready Warehouses

Apocalypse fantasists, zombie aficionados and conspiracy theorists, take heart -- if civilization's ever destroyed in a nuclear eyeblink or the walking dead reanimate, the U.S. government is prepared.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, a correspondent for NPR, recently became the first reporter to visit one of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Strategic National Stockpile warehouses, where curators hoard medical supplies, vaccines, antivirals and anything else imaginable to combat everything from radiation sickness to pandemics.

Half a dozen or so of these warehouses are rumored to exist, and Greenfieldboyce had to sign a confidentiality agreement preventing her from revealing the location or describing the exterior of the facility she toured.

But Greg Burel, director of the Strategic National Stockpile, put the enormity of the warehouses in terms most people can understand.

"If you envision, say, a Super Wal-Mart and stick two of those side by side and take out all the drop ceiling, that's about the same kind of space that we would occupy in one of these storage locations," Burel told NPR.

Started in 1999, the stockpile program began with about $50 million in annual funding, and now has assets valued at roughly $7 billion. Officials are secretive about exactly what they have, and how much of it, and that's because they don't want to give enemies an idea of how capable the U.S. is of weathering a national disaster.

"If everybody knows exactly what we have, then you know exactly what you can do to us that we can't fix," Burel said. "And we just don't want that to happen."

Inside the warehouse, supplies are stacked high to the ceiling like a Costco. Rows of ventilators to keep the sick breathing, huge stashes of painkillers under lock and key, enough shipping containers to send 50 tons of supplies out in the first wave.

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The warehouse is set up so that crucial medicines and supplies can reach towns and cities within hours of a disaster or attack, officials told NPR. The facilities are staffed by maintenance teams who manage the stockpiles, maintain equipment, and are trained to work with state and county health departments in the event of an emergency.

"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," Burel said. "But we would be foolish not to prepare for those events that we could predict might happen."

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The CDC says its warehouses and delivery mechanisms are designed to get supplies anywhere in the continental U.S. or its territories within 12 hours. The supplies would be delivered by truck and cargo airplanes.

But federal officials caution that it's not a one-way street, and their counterparts at the local levels of government need to be trained and prepared for public health emergencies. Tara O'Toole, who heads a stockpile committee at the National Academies of Sciences, said lawmakers need to make sure health departments and emergency services are fully funded.

"We have drastically decreased the level of state public health resources in the last decade. We've lost 50,000 state and local health officials. That's a huge hit," O'Toole told NPR. "The notion that this is all going to be top down, that the feds are in charge and the feds will deliver, is wrong."

Sources: NPR, Division of Strategic National Stockpile, CDC / Photo credit: CDC

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