A 564-acre, high-security federal government facility along the Loudoun-Clarke County border in Virginia serves as the backup site for the national emergency operations center run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, according to internal emails and public records obtained by the News4 I-Team. Those records also show the secretive facility, known as Mt. Weather, was briefly activated by federal agents on April 7 after a major electric power interruption hit the Washington, D.C., region.
In one email exchange, U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials revealed that Mt. Weather serves as an "alternate site" for the agency's National Operations Center, which serves as an around-the-clock war room, monitoring intelligence, emergency and security incidents nationwide.
In a note to colleagues at 3:46 p.m. April 7, in the minutes after the power problem struck the nation's capital, one U.S. Department of Homeland Security administrator wrote, "(Office of Operations Coordination) made the decision to shift (National Operations Center) operations to their alternate site at Mt Weather."
The agency records, formally released by Homeland Security under the Freedom of Information Act, show Mt. Weather is part of the government's planning and preparations for emergencies or catastrophes. Mt. Weather has also served as a bunker for top government officials and includes a massive set of vital equipment, intelligence and manpower, according to the I-Team's investigation.
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The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has operated Mt. Weather since 1979. Declassified government records, obtained by the I-Team, show the "High Point Special Facility," which was reportedly placed at Mt. Weather, had previously served an emergency relocation site for federal government officials.
Jacob Rosenthal, a former top aide to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, said he and some colleagues were sent into an underground bunker at Mt. Weather in 1962, amid the Cuban Missile Crisis. Rosenthal said Kennedy administration officials sent him to the site to prepare for the potential emergency relocation of the White House press corps.
In an interview with the I-Team, Rosenthal said, "This was the master relocation site for government, inside the bowel of the mountain." Rosenthal said there was space for 2,000 top federal officials, and it included working spaces for every major federal agency and the White House.
Mt. Weather's existence remained a secret to all but top federal officials until TWA Flight 514 crashed in close proximity to the site in December 1974. The crash killed more than 90 people and scattered smoking debris across a wide range of the mountain. An NBC News report after the crash said federal agents blocked news photographers from getting within range of the government facility. The broadcast report said, "Cameramen were not allowed on the scene for several hours." Another NBC News report in 1974 revealed Mt. Weather had served as a bunker for the President of the United States.
Little information about the facility has since leaked out to the public. Residents and community leaders in nearby Berryville, Virginia, said Mt. Weather is a large employer but a widespread mystery to townspeople and even some of the facility's own employees. Len Capelli, whom the I-Team met over lunch at the town's Berryville Grill, said Mt. Weather employees often keep their work assignments secret.
"I don't think anyone really knows what happens there, outside of the people in the federal government," Capelli said.
Agency memos and contracts obtained and reviewed by the I-Team show the Mt. Weather complex includes a full-time police department and fire department. There is an on-site medical unit, bunk beds, a dormitory, a cafeteria, a wastewater treatment facility and training rooms. Aerial footage of the facility show gated, locked equipment protruding from the ground. Tall security fencing surrounds the complex's entire perimeter.
One FEMA memo said Mt. Weather would be a relocation site for top Homeland Security officials who'd need to perform "mission essential functions." Those memos, which were shared between Homeland Security and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also said Mt. Weather helps support the National Continuity program, in which the government prepares for its response to disaster. Those memos said Mt. Weather is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They said a solar storm or space catastrophe would be one scenario in which the feds would activate Mt. Weather.
In response to the News4 I-Team investigation, a spokesman for Homeland Security confirms the agency activated Mt. Weather during the major power interruption April 7.
"Continuity of operations is critical in ensuring that the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) missions continue to be performed during a wide range of emergencies such as natural disasters or power outages," the spokesman said. "During the power outage impacting the National Capitol Region on April 7, the DHS National Operations Center (NOC) shifted operations to an alternate site out of an abundance of caution to ensure uninterrupted operations."