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A 'Safe Room' of One's Own

When disaster strikes, why not just tie a plastic bag over our heads?
 
 
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The code is orange. The sheets, plastic. The tape, duct.

President Bush has put the nation to task, and I'm taking him up on it: To prepare for the worst, I'm duct-taping myself and my two cats into my spare bedroom to seal us off from the world in a mock "safe room." I'm to spend 24 hours in a plastic-coated 10-by-12 room, equipped with food, water, a computer and a bucket (with lid and soapy water), which I plan to put off using as a Port-a-Potty as long as humanly possible.

"Turn off all ventilation, including furnaces, air conditioners, vents and fans. Seek shelter in an internal room, preferably one without windows. Seal the room with duct tape and plastic sheeting," advises the Federal Emergency Management Agency's website. Here we go.

It takes 20 minutes to tape my makeshift bunker and line the door bottoms with plastic sheeting. Had there been a real attack, I suppose I would be dead in that amount of time, unless I was considerably upwind from ground zero. But once the room's two doors (one to a patio, the other into the apartment) are lined in silver duct tape and the air vent is sealed off, I'm feeling airtight. Then the sneezing begins. Damn allergies. I scan the room, looking for my allergy medicine, but all I get is a mental picture of a bottle of Allegra, sitting on the kitchen counter. Sneezing, I glare at the cats, which are climbing on a stack of boxes in the closet, blissfully unaware that their dander has put me in this state.

But I'll soon discover that my allergies are the least of the day's concerns.

10:45 a.m.

Glancing around the room, I realize my duct-taping job isn't finished. If I really want to keep things out, I should seal up each plate of glass in the French doors that go out to my patio. There are 20 squares. This should pass time.

11:06

There's a red Suburban skidding around the muddy vacant lot behind my apartment. I wonder if he sees me duct-taping my windows. I feel conspicuous and paranoid.

11:10

Feeding time. I glance around at my provisions and settle on hummus, Wheat Thins, grapes and cheese. I think of one of my mom's favorite phrases, "cheese is binding," and eye the bucket distastefully. I limit my water intake.

It all started last week, when my editor asked me for a different angle on the government's newfound love of duct tape. I told him I'd create my own sealed-in "safe room" and stay in there for a prescribed number of hours.

"Just make sure you don't suffocate," one of my co-workers e-mailed. "Take a fork so you can poke emergency air holes. I don't think 'asphyxiated in mock safe room' would make a good entry on the worker's comp form."

Pshaw, thought I. This whole duct-tape-shelter thing is bound to fail. Houses here are built quickly, cheaply and are porous enough that, even in my attempts to seal myself in, I'll still be getting some kind of seepage. Right? I'm alarmed Friday, when I go to Wal-Mart, The Home Depot and Lowe's and find that supplies of duct tape are greatly depleted. Wal-Mart is out of plastic sheeting. And the home-improvement stores have large "emergency" displays that peddle duct tape, plastic sheeting, generators, batteries, flashlights and other emergency supplies.

People are just grasping for peace and order, I tell myself. This can't actually be effective.

11:26

I finish taping the glass, and I'm starting to remember other things I forgot, like a lamp. There's no overhead light, so once it hits 5:30 I'll have to rely on a night-light and the glow from the computer.

12:35 p.m.

I've planned a road trip to California. Spoken with my father on the phone. Called a friend. My cat keeps jumping on me and seems to be drooling as he purrs. The other one is in the closet, and every few minutes he screams. I notice that my allergies have calmed. I decide the cats aren't to blame, this time-it was probably the dust I stirred up in my taping blitz.

12:41

Time to clean and organize the room.

1:34

I've organized my closet. In the process, an ironing board fell out and narrowly missed whacking me on the head. I have visions of dying in here. The room feels like it's gotten about 15 degrees warmer, and my allergies are back. I wheeze.

1:35

I'd actually been looking forward to my 24 hours of semi-isolation. I'd do my taxes, make phone calls I'd put off, give the Sunday New York Times the attention it deserves, make duct-tape sculptures and apparel, whittle. Or just spend the majority of the time online. From FEMA's website I'd already learned how to identify when we're hit by a nuclear, biological or chemical attack: The streets will be lined with mass casualties.

1:37

I'm warily eyeing the bucket in the corner of the room, and regretting the coffee I drank before coming in here.

1:39

Reflection: Growing up in Houston, a "safe room" was a closet, and I spent a number of nights inside one with my family when hurricanes threatened. But we never used duct tape.

2:45

I've started feeling light-headed. Or am I just dreading the inevitable peeing in a bucket? Nope. I stand up, and the room spins. Online, I read that after five hours, the carbon dioxide buildup in a sealed room becomes dangerous. "Oxygen levels below 19.5 percent may cause asphyxia," I read on one website. "Exposure to carbon dioxide gas can cause nausea and respiratory problems. High concentrations may cause vasodilation leading to circulatory collapse." Screw this. Sticking to my proposed 24 would mean sure death.

Is the government trying to kill us? It's probably not intentional. FEMA acknowledges the potential suffocation threat, and most media have at least touched on it. "Ten square feet of floor space per person will provide sufficient air to prevent carbon dioxide buildup for up to five hours," reads the government's disaster guide ( www.fema.gov).

But the same document suggests a three-day supply of food and water, which, within a sealed room spells duct-tape disaster. None of the documents I could find reconcile that time disparity, which leaves me confused, but it's at least an oxygen-rich confusion. Not everyone has the Internet to warn them of the five-hour limit, and the media and public have latched onto the notion of salvation through duct tape, glossing over the notion that this could also be a silent killer wreaking biological terror from within your very own safe room.

Four hours and 45 minutes was my limit. I untape the vent and the underside of the door, and cool air actually rushes in. I consider sticking out the 24 hours (I really want to fashion a duct-tape skirt), but the motivation is gone. Why would I pee in a bucket when the mock toxins from my apartment are seeping in through the vent and under the door? If I'm going to die, I might as well retain some dignity and walk down the hall to the bathroom.

Kate Silver is a Las Vegas Weekly staff writer.