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Just south of Macon, there’s a disaster waiting to happen
This article originally appeared in our April 2013 issue.
We live in a world obsessed with its end. The past decade has given us a litany of Revelation-scale misery, or at least the threat of it: 9/11, Katrina, nuclear weapons in the hands of madmen (hello, Kim Jong-un), monster tornadoes, blazing meteors, relentless plagues, hellacious storms. Hollywood caught on a while ago (see any of the following: Contagion, The Walking Dead, 2012), so perhaps it was only a matter of time before private industry saw an opportunity.
Enter Geoff Burkart. In 2005 Burkart was working for BellSouth, helping to rebuild communication networks in the Gulf region in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Shocked by the government’s incomprehensible struggle to coordinate an effective response to the disaster, Burkart began to imagine a way for rescue workers and organizers to better prepare for such calamity. His solution: Build a simulator that could be rented by and tailored to police, firefighter, and first-responder needs, where they could hone their skills and teamwork in immersive, large-as-life crises.
For the next four years, Burkart traveled as far away as the U.K., canvassing disaster-preparedness officials, assembling from them a wish list of training scenarios. Then he found a location—a hundred miles south of Atlanta, along I-75, not far from the Georgia countryside that serves as the setting for a hit TV show about a global zombie pandemic. In 2012 Guardian Centers opened on an abandoned 830-acre site just outside of Perry. Perhaps appropriately, the buildings—all 780,000 square feet of them—were once home to a Northrop Grumman missile factory during the Cold War. But the Soviet Union fell before the plant produced a single rocket, and the building sat vacant for more than a decade until Burkart bought it for roughly $15 million. Aside from being the state Burkart calls home, Georgia is the hub of Region IV of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, extending westward to Mississippi and north to Kentucky—one of the nation’s busier disaster zones, with tornadoes and hurricanes. And the factory—with its vast, versatile space, both indoors and out, combined with its remote location—seemed ideal for just the kind of large-scale playacting he envisioned.
But of course, the circa-1990 complex was far from ready-made. Burkart wanted verisimilitude of an unseen scope, where emergency workers could simulate the effects of storms, floods, terrorist bombings, chemical spills, and even train derailments. To fund this Doomsday Disneyland, he gathered $51 million in private investment—and planted that fortune in the Houston County soil without a single prebooked customer. “Everyone that knows me will tell you I’m crazy,” says Burkart. “No debate there.”
The showpiece of the training center is Mock City. Clients approach by desolate “interstate”—more than a mile of privately owned, DOT-spec highway. Past the trailer park and the football field (for staging simulations), they pull into a cityscape of fifty one-, two-, and three-story buildings where piles of rubble strewn with broken office furniture sit in the shells of two high-rises, twisted electrical wire and rebar dangling overhead. In the neighborhood to the north, rusted swing sets are streaked with the same Georgia clay that is caked as high as eight feet up the cinder-block walls of dwellings swallowed and spit out by intentional flood from the neighboring reservoir. To the south, in a chute once intended to carry missiles for fueling, now runs 1,600 feet of side-by-side subway track and eight dingy, hand-me-down D.C. Metro train cars. The entire city is rigged like a Hollywood set, with special-effects machines to provide fire, smoke, sparks, and sprinklers, overseen by twenty-seven cameras that feed into the command center on the other side of the complex, more than a mile away.
Since officially opening in December, Burkart has hosted three clients: the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Marines, and the state of Georgia’s search and rescue team. He says the price of admission varies widely depending on which facilities need to be used, what prep-work is required, and the size of the group (the old offices of the missile factory can be converted to house up to 1,200). Fifteen search and rescue workers on a two-day operation would cost about $300 per person per day, plus materials. Three thousand people would cost less per.
While Burkart is open to various uses for Mock City—from movie set to training journalists in covering disasters—the jackpot is government rescue and relief agencies, and as with anything government related, he says, it takes time to get in those doors and into those training cycles.
In the meantime, the streets of Mock City are deserted, empty cars parked silently along the curb, heavy rubble undisturbed by the wind that whips across the landscape, as quiet as the day after Armageddon.