Don and Charlene Zwonitzer know a thing or two about preparing for the unexpected. The knowledge comes from reclaiming a 1960s-era Atlas E Missile Silo and converting it into home sweet home - and eventually, they hope, a modern-day computer disaster-recovery facility.
Home for the Zwonitzers is 20 feet underground in the panhandle of Nebraska, where arriving visitors disappear into the middle of nowhere before finding themselves in front of the couple's 47-ton steel "garage" door, where the military once backed in its 82-foot-long Atlas missile.
"This really is our dream home, I've fallen in love with it," says Charlene, an interior designer and artist who helped design the silo's living quarters and doesn't miss cleaning windows. At 5,000 square feet, the home is the smaller of the buried compound's two underground structures.
There's more to the dream.
The Zwonitzers want to fill 15,000 nearly vacant square feet of their bunker with racks of computers to provide a safe digital haven for everyone from Fortune 500 companies to family businesses looking to secure their data as part of disaster-recovery or business-continuity plans.
The couple thinks it has the perfect location: centrally located, geologically stable, away from major metropolitan populations and military targets and secured with a nine-foot barbed-wire-topped compound fence and steel blast doors.
Don, a warm man in both his demeanor and the cardigan he wears to ward off the nip in the underground air, rattles off those benefits almost forgetting to add that the structure is the epitome of physical security with its two-foot-thick cement walls and ceilings constructed with 139,000 cubic yards of reinforced concrete and 27,840 tons of structural steel.
Kimball County, where cows outnumber humans four to one, is remote, but Don says access abounds for potential tenants. The bunker is within a few miles of the Kimball Airport Flight Center, which accommodates small jets. There is the railroad and a north-south Interstate to be finished by 2009 that will intersect I-80 at a junction less than two miles from the Zwonitzer's home.
Kimball has nine motels, and the Zwonitzer's property has two aboveground mobile homes that can serve as office space or temporary housing.
Cyber access also is abundant, as the nearby Sprint SONET ring can provide 72 strands of fiber, allowing anything from OC-3 to OC-192 connections or even a direct link to the ring.
"This is absolutely fascinating," says Fred Wettling, infrastructure architect for Bechtel, about the silo's possible second life. In 1959, Bechtel helped draw the blueprints for the bunker and then aided in its construction.
"If we still had offices in Denver, this might work fine as a disaster-recovery center. The idea has merit." Wettling says physical security is key but other factors come into play for disaster recovery.
"You look at any large data center, and air conditioning is a big concern during a power outage," he says. "The temperature can skyrocket."
The bunker without any internal heat source stays at about 52 degrees in the winter and 55 in the summer. The humidity is under 60%, which is healthy for humans and computers, and prevents mold growth.
A hands-on guy
Don, 57, a retired electrical engineer with a passion for computers, likes to showcase his rebuilding project, including a sophisticated filtration system to keep the inside air clean even if there is a nuclear blast outside, and the UPS he constructed for the home and will replicate in the disaster-recovery center.
The UPS, which backs up commercial power from the local utility, includes a diesel-powered generator and two banks of flooded lead-acid deep-discharge batteries configured at 24 volts that can supply four days of power on a single charge. The couple also keeps 300 gallons of fuel for the generator, which gets three hours of run time per gallon.
The first UPS is backed by a second UPS that consists of eight banks of batteries that can be charged by a second generator, which is fueled by a second 300-gallon diesel reserve, or by wind or solar power.
"It's redundancy to the extreme," Don says. "You never know what service is going to go away."
One thing that won't go away is the silo. Its two square structures, Cold War relics that once housed a 260,000-pound intercontinental ballistic missile and a launch command center, sit side by side underground, connected by a 120-foot culvert-like tunnel. The silo is designed to withstand a 1-megaton blast up to 1.6 miles away, which is 77 times the size of the bomb that leveled Hiroshima, Japan, in World War II.
Don has turned the home into his personal workshop with sensors to warn of approaching cars and interior motion detectors that automatically turn on lights when someone enters a room. He also has installed a surveillance camera aboveground that swivels 360 degrees and zooms to display the outside world on a 61-inch projection television in the living room. The camera is operated by remote control or by a voice-activated computer named after Hal, the inanimate star of the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey ," which the Zwonitzers saw on one of their first dates.
The bunker, commissioned in 1962 and shuttered in 1965, has been a labor of love for the couple, who purchased it from a salvage company for $40,000 in 1996. They spent two years refurbishing the site and another five-and-a-half years perfecting the interior after they moved in.
What was once infested with darkness, litter, twisted metal, vermin and school-boy graffiti now has a bright kitchen and living room with 15-foot ceilings, a corn-burning stove for heat and a recreation room with a pool table, Ping-Pong table, exercise equipment, hot tub and indoor waterfall.
In 2002, their daughter Janelle rode into the missile bay in a horse-drawn carriage and was married in front of 100 guests.
The Zwonitzers are much like anyone approaching retirement age. Don has his home projects and fiddles with Hal, having programmed him to playfully mimic Charlene's catch phrase, "I just love this place," every time some decorative lighting is turned on.
Charlene, 54, spends time in her sewing loft above the guest bedroom, where she makes dolls or plays out-of-date video games on an aging computer. She keeps ample pictures of the couple's four kids and six grandchildren spread throughout the living room, two bedrooms and library. And she gushes about establishing the disaster-recovery center, a project that could bring her two software engineer sons to live on-site.
"I'd love to have my grandbabies around," she says.
She also grows fresh fruit and vegetables, having converted the silo's flame pit, which funneled the missile's exhaust away from the bunker, into a greenhouse that slopes on a 45-degree angle from 30 feet underground to the glass roof at ground level.
The bunker has a canning kitchen, pantry and monster food supply that could sustain 11 people underground for more than a year. There is also a 16,000-gallon water reserve that backs up a well and solar-powered water heaters that ensure hot showers at night.
Now the chore is to make the other dream come to life.
"People get it as soon as you say 'missile silo.' They know it's a hardened structure," says Don Lewis, CEO of EMR4Doctors.com, which develops software to manage medical clinic data. The Henderson, Nev., company is considering the Zwonitzer's bunker to establish a data back-up and retrieval center for the 400 clinics it serves.
Lewis says the Sept. 11 attacks and the recent tsunami have added survivalism into the disaster-recovery picture. "My biggest image is still of the World Trade Center towers coming down."
Another prospective tenant, the Texas company DIPS, which manages data for healthcare facilities, sees the same physical benefits.
"This makes sense to us," says Floyd Godfrey, president of DIPS. "We had not thought of anything like this when we were looking for a secure building."
While the Zwonitzers are convinced they have a diamond in the rough, Don says what they need now is awareness to get the ball rolling.
"We need someone to get us started, someone to come in here and push our button," he says, not ignoring the fact that he is sitting in the very room that in 1962 housed "that" button, the one that fired the missile.