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Terror alerts create a run on duct tape

With new warnings out, officials release the first widespread advice on readying for terror.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 13, 2003



WASHINGTON

In only days, the American public - especially in New York and Washington, D.C. - has gone from "I'd rather not think about another terrorist attack" to a shopping spree for disaster supplies, clearing store shelves of duct tape, plastic sheeting, and bottled water.

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This zero-to-60 mobilization, based on the federal government's first widespread instructions on what the public should have on hand "just in case," reflects a public-information strategy that analysts say is slow off the mark.

Even last Friday, when the Bush administration raised the terrorist threat level to "high," the thrust of the message to the public was to be especially vigilant for "suspicious activity." Official mentions of disaster kits and family contact plans seemed out of context to many Americans, even those living within shouting distance of the White House.

The new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is aware that the public has been feeling ill-informed, and asks for patience, noting that the department is just getting on its feet. "In coming weeks, you're going to see a more concerted effort to make sure Americans are prepared," says Brian Roehrkasse, a DHS spokesman.

Meanwhile, the DHS and the American Red Cross point to extensive information on their websites to help people prepare for a variety of attacks, including radiological, biological, and chemical. Experts on emergency preparedness note that in the event of an attack, people should first listen to the news and follow official guidance. Everyone should have a battery-operated radio, in case power goes out. If people in heavily populated areas panic and flee in their cars, gridlock will likely ensue.

Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, US government at all levels has had to thread the needle between informing the public and not spreading undue alarm. Looking back at cold-war civil defense exercises such as "duck and cover" and air-raid drills, when fear centered on the possibility of Soviet nuclear attack, experts say that such efforts didn't necessarily enhance safety - and could frighten children, in particular.

Also, since 9/11, government has focused on readying first responders. "There's been tremendous focus on federal restructuring and on the federal-state-local government nexus," says Juliette Kayyem, a terrorism expert at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "But there's no easy way for government officials to talk to the public about citizen preparedness without raising incredible fear and panic." She says the more regularized officials can make the discussion, the easier it will be - the way Californians prepare for earthquakes and Floridians for hurricanes.

The contents of terrorism disaster kits, as well as the plans that Washington recommends, are similar to those that Californians and Floridians already make, says Carol Hall, manager of the weapons of mass destruction and terrorism program at the Red Cross. She recommends that parents contact their kids' schools to find out what plans are in place.

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