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.
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.
In Washington, D.C., considered a prime target for terrorists, the public schools have launched a pilot communication program: Fast Track. The test site, John Eaton Elementary School, has a toll-free, high-capacity number that parents can call in an emergency to find out what's happening with their children and what they should do, if anything.
ONE model for terrorism preparedness that US officials have studied is Israel, which stepped up measures during the Persian Gulf War. Families received gas masks and plastic sheeting for windows, in the event of an Iraqi chemical attack. Gas masks aren't on the DHS or Red Cross disaster kit lists, but sheeting and duct tape are.
The larger point, though, is that the public must be prepared to respond intelligently. Much instruction on what to do would come from local authorities, Washington officials point out. But local-level public-information campaigns have been sketchy, relying largely on press conferences and community meetings, local Red Cross chapters, and the Web.
Mass mailings are expensive and impractical, says Larry Langford, director of media for Chicago's Office of Emergency Management. He says his office has other techniques for contacting citizens in an emergency, such as automated phone calls. Money is an obstacle, though, as Washington has yet to free funds for localities dealing with terrorism preparedness.
"We've made a request for a considerable sum of money from the federal government, many millions of dollars," says Mr. Langford. "We're doing what we can out of the city budget. But that will last only so long."
Langford says the level of public awareness in Chicago varies, depending on the neighborhood; People living and working in high rises, for instance, have planned more extensively than those in single-family homes.
• Assemble a disaster pack with battery-powered radio, first-aid kit, sanitation supplies, batteries, nonperishable food and water, duct tape, scissors, and plastic sheeting (for doors, windows and vents in the room in which you'll take shelter, to block out contaminated air).
• Listen to your radio for announcements and instructions, such as whether to remain inside or evacuate the area.
• If you're told to stay inside, turn off all ventilation; seek shelter in an internal room, preferably one with no windows; seal the room with duct tape and plastic sheeting. Ten square feet of floor space per person will provide enough air to avoid carbon-dioxide buildup for five hours.
• Remain in protected areas where toxic vapors are reduced; be sure to take your radio.
• If you are caught in an unprotected area, attempt to get upwind of the contaminated area; find shelter as quickly as possible; and listen to your radio for official instructions.
After a chemical attack:
• Remove all items in contact with the body, including contact lenses. Clothing should be cut off to avoid contact with eyes, ears, and mouth.
• Flush eyes; wash face and hair, and rinse.
• Change into uncontaminated clothes - items that were stored in drawers or closets.