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“We are looking to the future needs of a rapidly developing and intensely interesting branch of science,” the observatory director explained, “and are trying to build the very best observatory possible.” Using motor-operated rotating steel drums lined with as much as 40,000 feet of piano wire, Mount Weather’s kite team broke its own world altitude record in 1910, flying a kite 23,826 feet into the air and recording the lowest temperature ever (29 degrees Fahrenheit below zero) using a kite-launched instrument.As meteorology advanced and better technologies arrived, the Weather Bureau handed off the majority of the 100-acre facility to the Army for use as a World War I–era artillery range.The government then spent the better part of the 1920s trying without success to get rid of the property.Later still, beginning in 1936, Mount Weather became a Bureau of Mines facility where the agency tested various boring methods.The rock on the mountain was exceptionally dense, and the bureau began building a narrow but lengthy tunnel into the mountain for experiments on blasting and drilling methods.During World War II, the government housed as many as 100 conscientious objectors there, pressing them into service as weather researchers to help develop better forecasts for the Northern Hemisphere. Consider: The two men who are supposed to be helping run the federal government’s disaster response agency had a pretty quiet late August. Both had been nominated as deputy administrators in July, but Congress went on its long August recess without taking action on either selection—despite the fact that both are eminently qualified for the jobs.Even as a once-in-a-thousand-year storm barreled into Houston, these two veterans of disaster response—Daniel A. Leaving the roles open as the annual Atlantic hurricane season arrived was the clearest recent sign that FEMA—an agency whose success or failure translates directly into human suffering avoided or exacerbated—barely registers in Washington.

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One newspaper columnist at the time had a succinct summation of the new agency’s shortcomings: “The Federal Civil Defense Administration has had no authority to do anything specific, or to make anyone else do it.” Unfortunately it’s a criticism that would continue to ring true, straight through natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina.

The transition has not been smooth, to say the least.

And to this day, the agency’s weird history can be glimpsed in its strange mix of responsibilities, limitations, and quirks.

The nascent Weather Bureau, the forerunner of the National Weather Service, picked the isolated site because it was far away from that era’s cutting-edge technology—electrical trolley lines, whose troublesome electric currents could throw off magnetic observations.

“We are looking to the future needs of a rapidly developing and intensely interesting branch of science,” the observatory director explained, “and are trying to build the very best observatory possible.” Using motor-operated rotating steel drums lined with as much as 40,000 feet of piano wire, Mount Weather’s kite team broke its own world altitude record in 1910, flying a kite 23,826 feet into the air and recording the lowest temperature ever (29 degrees Fahrenheit below zero) using a kite-launched instrument." data-reactid="29"The cornerstone of FEMA’s secret world is a bunker in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains that has served as the civilian government’s primary emergency hideaway since the 1950s.

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