The 40,000-square-foot, two-story bunker here was the creation of Ling-Chieh “Louis” Kung, the nephew of Taiwan’s influential Madame Chiang Kai-shek. The fortune he earned during the booming 1970s from his now-defunct Houston oil company, Westland Oil Development Corp., allowed him to indulge his fears that Red China or the Soviet Union would launch a nuclear attack on the U.S. Mr. Kung, who died in 1996 at about the age of 75, bought hundreds of acres of wooded cow pasture on the edge of this small town and secretly built an underground fortress to house at least 700 people, including his employees and their families, for a two-month emergency. Now, Continental Airlines, for reasons of its own, has taken over part of the extravagant Cold War folly, with plans to use it as a crisis-operations center. The destruction and panic wrought along the Gulf Coast by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita last year prompted many companies to seek new places to house emergency operations. Continental had an emergency-operations center near Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport and it has offices downtown. But concerned about gridlock, floods and possible electrical outages in a hurricane, the company decided it needed a safer backup facility to operate its world-wide flights if it should ever have to evacuate its Houston headquarters. The airline, along with more than 20 other companies, found its solution buried deep inside a hill in this small community northwest of Houston.
In May, John Stelly, Continental’s managing director of technology, was given 45 days to convert the rented shelter space for emergency offices and data storage. After descending more than 50 feet in an elevator to survey the project, he found himself in a subterranean ghost town of shadowy halls, mysterious rooms and dust-covered equipment. The executive says he stared in wonder at a room filled with 115 triple-decker bunks, each with an individual reading light. Later, as he went to work there, he sometimes imagined what it would be like to be trapped in this place for months with hundreds of other people. “It gives you a weird, eerie feeling,” he said. The world was awash in old fallout shelters after the Cold War ended in 1989. Over the years, many public and private bunkers in the U.S. and Europe have been converted to wine cellars, nightclubs, storage facilities and even mushroom farms. A bunker secretly built in White Sulphur Springs, W. Va., to house Congress is now rented out to the public for parties and showcased in guided tours. Many other old shelters have been marketed as secure data centers or emergency headquarters for companies. Adam Laurie, who renovates and leases ex-military bomb shelters in the United Kingdom, toured Mr. Kung’s Texas bunker three years ago. Though he was impressed with the quality of construction, “the degree of paranoia of the person who built it was extreme,” he said. The bunker was as self-contained as a small city, with its own power and medical facilities, morgue, jail cells, recreation rooms and water tanks. Two pagoda-style buildings outfitted with gun ports for machine guns protected stairwell entrances to tunnels leading into the shelter. In case of an attack, the tunnels were designed to collapse, sealing off the bunker from the outside world. Two hundred feet away, an above-ground, four-story office-building with bulletproof windows housed Mr. Kung’s oil-company headquarters and family residence.
From the start the project, completed in 1982, was a source of intrigue and gossip for the town of Montgomery. Residents watched as a mile-long procession of cement trucks ferried cargo to what they knew only as a giant hole in the ground. Rumors swirled for years of a secret subterranean shopping mall. “Everybody’s heard about it. Everybody’s curious about it. Not everybody’s seen it,” said Jennifer Stratton, a waitress at Phil’s Roadhouse & Grill down the road from the bunker. Mr. Kung lost title to the property after the 1980s oil bust. The bunker sat frozen in time until investors bought it and in 2003 hired Montgomery-based Westlin Corp. to take charge of converting it into a rental site for data storage. A quick survey of the property made it clear this would be no ordinary renovation. Using a flashlight to light his way, Westlin President David Herr says he made his way past wasp nests and thick cobwebs to the underground stairwell, then through two reinforced steel blast doors that slammed shut behind him. A cutaway of the complex built by Ling-Chieh ‘Louis’ Kung. In the bunker’s control room, the panel where flashing lights would signal a nuclear attack was still mounted on a wall with the key in the slot for locking down the facility. Geiger counters for measuring radioactivity remained on water and ventilation systems.
Mr. Herr quickly saw that some of the rooms would be easier to convert than others. Decontamination showers have been left alone since they might still prove useful in a chemical spill or other emergency. Westlin installed a small elevator so tenants wouldn’t have to take the stairs, and secured it with biometric access that requires handprints to verify identities. The company is converting 13 small conjugal rooms, originally intended to give couples privacy, but Mr. Herr and his staff are still puzzling over what to do with some of the space. For example, four steel-encased jail cells remain untouched with their original bed frames and doors because they are too small to bother updating. Interest was only lukewarm when the bunker opened for leasing in early 2005. That changed after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, with the number of bunker tenants doubling to 50, including Continental, the largest occupant. Other tenants include Anadarko Petroleum Corp. and medical companies from Houston and Louisiana. Continental spent several million dollars — it won’t say exactly how much — to customize its bunkhouse space and additional space leased in the nearby office building. Once the lease contract was signed, Mr. Stelly had to rush to complete the conversion of the company’s 2,000-square-foot bunker space before this year’s hurricane season. Workers had to tear down one wall, a job that usually takes a couple of hours. In this case, it took two days’ labor with a sledgehammer to break up the two-foot-thick steel-reinforced concrete. When power and air-conditioning units proved too big to get down the elevator, workers had to dig down through the earth to reach the corrugated-steel tunnels and peel back the top panels so the equipment could be lowered in by crane. Continental’s executives have decided they will activate the bunker in a Category 3 storm, or whenever workers must evacuate the downtown Houston control center. The airline’s space leased in the above-ground office building is for 275 emergency staff. Only a few workers will be needed in the bunker. Tomorrow, Continental plans to operate a work shift from the site and hold an open house and barbeque so employees can bring their families to see the bunker. If history is any indicator, not everyone will be interested in the tour. Mr. Stelly said some Continental employees who have already been to the facility have preferred to wait up top rather than descend into the depths of the bunker. “It can give you that claustrophobic feeling,” he said.
Melanie Trottman, Wall Street Journal