San Jose as the city most ready
California city is touted as national leader in planning for emergencies.
SAN JOSE, CALIF. — Somewhere amid the tawny mountains of this sprawling metropolis, there is a secret facility that holds a cache of antibiotics designed to counter biological threats from anthrax to smallpox.
In police precincts and firehouses here, almost every officer and firefighter has received training on what to do in a nuclear or chemical emergency - and when rescue crews respond to calls, they bring along sensors that detect hazardous materials.
This is San Jose, considered by many to be the city best prepared to deal with a terrorist attack. In many ways, that's hardly surprising. From its disaster preparedness to its child-care policies, this city of broad avenues and palm trees has a rich tradition of cutting-edge public policy.
But in light of the recent terrorist strikes, experts say, the nation's other urban hubs can't afford to lag behind much longer.
As the economy falters, finding the money to replicate San Jose's response plans could be problematic. With many Americans already wary of visiting population centers, though, big cities must now find ways to reassure citizens that they are safe. Otherwise, should strikes continue, the urban revival of the past decade could begin to vanish in a fright flight to suburbs and rural areas.
"This is going to become a big problem for cities," says Joel Kotkin, author of "The New Geography: How the Digital Revolution is Reshaping the American Landscape." "We may see the beginnings of what we saw in the 1960s and '70s. The reason people left [cities] was the crime wave. This is sort of a crime wave in a different way."
Such a demographic reversal, of course, is far from assured. Cities have responded in various ways to the new threats, from cordoning off streets to posting armed guards near potential targets. These measures - combined with the fact that there have been no new large-scale urban attacks since Sept. 11 - seem to have helped quell public concerns.
Yet throughout the US, there is an acute awareness that all cities must be prepared to act quickly in the event of a terrorist strike. Few cities have prepared more thoroughly than San Jose.
Through "sentinel sites" such as chain-store pharmacies, the city can see if there has been a run on certain kinds of medications - suggesting the possibility of a biological strike. When law-enforcement officials are called to a scene, they have robots capable of handling tasks too dangerous for humans.
Perhaps more important than such equipment and supplies, however, is the emphasis San Jose puts on training and planning, experts say. Police officers receive classroom training each year on how to respond to terrorist attacks, while firefighters take a refresher course every 18 months. Live-action exercises are also ongoing, though the dates and locations are kept secret.
"San Jose is doing one of the best jobs, if not the best job, in the country," says Olden Henson, former chairman of the National League of Cities' public-safety committee. "It began early."
In 1998, San Jose was the first city in the nation to complete a Defense Department training program aimed at helping cities prepare for terrorist threats. It was also first to craft a comprehensive response plan. In the event of an anthrax or sarin gas attack, for instance, local hospitals and relevant city departments have an action plan.
Today, this plan has become the national model; it is distributed to other cities by the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Part of the reason for San Jose's leadership comes down to simple geography. Straddled by the San Andreas and Hayward Faults, San Jose has long had to deal with the threat of earthquakes.
As a result, the network of emergency services here has always been extensive and up-to-date. So when the federal government in 1997 began a program to prepare the 27 largest US cities for terrorist attacks, San Jose already had much of the infrastructure in place.
The city's penchant for civic thinking has also played a major part. This was the first major US city to gather data on traffic stops to combat racial profiling. And Santa Clara County - which includes San Jose - has taken the unprecedented step of guaranteeing healthcare coverage for everyone under 18.
San Jose also responded seriously when the federal government began its antiterrorism program. For one, it created a permanent position for someone to coordinate emergency services. It also paid more than $1 million to train members of the new response team. Reproducing San Jose's model nationwide, however, might be difficult. As the US economy sours, budgetary concerns could prevent other metropolitan areas from taking immediate steps.
In fact, such a huge undertaking might be impossible without federal help, says Frances Edwards-Winslow, director of San Jose's Office of Emergency Services. She notes that even her well-prepared city needed $1.4 million in federal money to set up new emergency plans, and she likens the challenges ahead to those of the cold war.
When America thought the Soviets might rain down missiles, the government began the Civil Defense initiative, helping cities and counties pay for bomb shelters and sirens, as well as instituting the legendary schooltime bombing drills of the 1950s and '60s. Today, if it wants cities to be prepared, Dr. Edwards-Winslow says, similar measures may be required. "If the federal government sincerely believes we're going to be a target, it has to establish a program like the Civil Defense program," she says.
Whatever the remedy, experts agree, it will mean a broader change for how US cities and their citizens view themselves. Not that places like New York or San Jose need to be under pseudo-martial law. Rather, they might simply need to graft a little Old World awareness onto the open American lifestyle.
"My sense is that European cities are far ahead because they have been dealing with this for a long time," says Mr. Kotkin. "For us, this is a real coming of age. We overcome the crime wave of the '60s and '70s. Now, this is a different situation."