City by city, terror war goes local

From Baltimore to Tampa, Fla., mayors rush to implement disaster-alert plans.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In Charleston, S.C., all water-utility workers - including private plumbers laying pipe for the city - now have to carry special ID cards.

In Tampa, Fla., fans attending Buccaneer football games are searched for a variety of contraband, including banners with sticks and diaper bags.

As part of a new "biosurveillance" regimen in Baltimore, city officials daily monitor absentee rates in schools, on the lookout for spikes that might suggest a bacteria attack.

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From Savannah to Sacramento, American cities are now in a perpetual state of Code Red, preparing for - and hoping to prevent - a possible terrorist attack.

Gone are many of the usual issues that dominate urban agendas - crime, homelessness, the need for a tougher pooper-scooper law. Instead, cities are focused on one issue, security, perhaps more than at any time in American history.

The three-alarm attention is certainly understandable. Until Sept. 11, most cities had some kind of emergency-response plans in place. But they were often for hurricanes or industrial accidents or some other more conventional calamity. Few, if any, were prepared for the kind of biological, chemical, or other evil deed that terrorists might devise. Consequently, cities are rushing to fill in gaps in readiness: training doctors, streamlining communication between health workers and police, stockpiling antibiotics and vaccines, buying gas masks and moon suits.

"If you watched what happened in Washington, D.C., last week, even the nation's capital can't make sure that the city's postal workers are safe," says Cameron Whitman, a policy director at the National League of Cities (NLC). "That's partly because nobody's really ready."

At the same time, if the World Trade Center attacks reinforced one lesson, it's that cities are the first line of defense and response in most any disaster.

"If we waited for advice from Washington on self-defense, we'd all still be singing 'God Save the Queen,' " says Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley. "We just went ahead with the smart people we have here and did what was the only responsible thing to do."

So are others. According to a recent NLC survey, 90 percent of cities with a population greater than 100,000 have updated or revised their emergency-response plans since Sept. 11. Seventy-four percent have increased security around public-water supplies, 76 percent are seeking additional antiterrorism training, and 68 percent have conducted emergency exercises.

Sentinels in Clarksburg

Nor is the vigilance just going on in big cities. Hopewell, Va., pop. 20,000, plans to run training exercises this week to prepare for any disaster that might befall a local chemical plant. In Clarksburg, W.Va., the airport doesn't have a gate. But two armed National Guardsmen now stand sentry at the airfield.

"It's not just New York City and Washington, D.C.," says Michael Reinemer of the NLC. "It's smaller towns that probably need to think in ways they never have before."

Some urban areas are clearly taking more aggressive steps than others. Baltimore is one of those being watched by other cities.

Under its new system, health officials test the city's water three times a day. A security council of emergency and health officials meets routinely. An antiterrorism consultant spent a month making recommendations for each potential target in the city. Intelligence communication has been beefed up, so that local, state, and federal law-enforcement officials share tips.

When the FBI got intelligence last week that Baltimore might be subjected to an anthrax attack, for instance, the network quickly swung into action. Everyone was alerted. The information turned out to be unsubstantiated - but the episode shows how quickly officials now respond.

"In the old days - three weeks ago - [the FBI] wouldn't have passed something like that on until they'd had four or five weeks to assess its credibility," says Mr. O'Malley. "By then, the six hours' lead time we had to do something would have been long gone."

None of this heightened security, however, comes cheap. If Baltimore spends as much on police overtime for the rest of this year as it has in the last 40 days, it will be facing as much as a $10 million budget deficit. City officials are encouraging private security firms to help fill in the gaps.

Other cities are already considering dramatic action to pay for new protective suits and police training. King County, Wash., which includes Seattle, is considering a one-time $3 million property tax increase to help pay for all the new expenses.

Local authorities are also hoping for more money from Washington. But that may be wishful thinking: Many other interests are lined up at the federal trough, too. Before the Sept. 11 attack, the federal government had earmarked $8.7 billion to combat terrorism this year. Only about $300 million was expected to go to local authorities.

"The monies have got to get to the locals," says Amy Smithson, a bioterrorism expert at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington.

Think long term

Another challenge facing cities is a short attention span. "Right now, everybody's focusing on terrorism," says Juliette Kayyem, a readiness expert at Harvard University. "There's going to be a time when it's not the focus, and that's when the greatest challenge to domestic preparedness will come."

For that reason, Dr. Kayyem urges cities to pursue a "dual-use" approach - folding counterterrorism planning into the regular emergency-response plans.

Some cities are following her advice. Joseph Riley, mayor of Charleston, S.C., puts terrorism-preparedness in terms of hurricanes. Lucien Canton, San Francisco's director of emergency services, says the city's extensive earthquake planning translates to terrorism. "We're used to the disaster of the day," he says.

Samar Farah contributed to this report from Boston.

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