New York --
In a closed meeting recently in Manhattan, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly
fielded a question about the city's evacuation plan in case of biological,
chemical or radiological attack.
"He took a long sip of his tea, and put it down, and said, 'What
evacuation?' " recalled one participant, whose employer forbids him to be
quoted by name. "He said, 'This is a city of 8 million people. It can't be
To someone choosing between shelter and flight, with contaminants in the
air, that would be valuable information. National models show that a sudden
exodus from nearly any big city would leave people gridlocked and exposed,
while safe rooms they could make at home would offer life-saving protection.
But President Bush and local elected leaders are not saying so in public.
For political and bureaucratic reasons, governments at all levels are telling
far less to the public than to privileged insiders about how to prepare for
and behave in the initial chaos of a mass-casualty event.
Homeland Security adviser Thomas Ridge often describes another major attack
as "a matter of when, not if," and he said recently it could kill "vast
numbers of Americans." But he has not urged the public to take available steps
that could reduce the toll. When asked, government is dispensing generic
guidance with fewer particulars than it puts in pamphlets about hurricanes and
The Bush administration, Congress and some municipal authorities are
preparing themselves more effectively. Congress, for example, has evacuation
routes and respiratory protection for every member and aide.
John Sorensen, director of the Emergency Management Center at the federal
government's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, said he "offered to
develop brochures for chemical weapons, biological agents and so forth" that
would describe in plain language what Americans could do to prepare. He said
the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the American Red Cross, which
jointly publish the most widely used disaster preparation materials, "told me,
'We're not in the business of terrifying the public.' "
Thomas Glass, principal investigator in an authoritative National Science
Foundation study of public behavior during emergencies, said the research
found that planners consistently forecast panic that does not take place and
misconceive the reasons for unsafe behavior. After examining hundreds of
government contingency plans, Glass said they commonly treated the public in
the manner "of animal husbandry."
The Bush administration has struggled with public disclosure of risks and
precautions. Political appointees say the White House is reluctant to do more,
in part because it sees its color-coded "homeland security advisory system,"
introduced in March, as a public relations failure. At least until recently,
elected officials also calculated that asking the public to make specific
preparations at home would undercut the political message that government was
doing everything that could be done.
"Most people want to feel their elected and public safety officials are
dealing with this," said Mayor Mike Guido of Dearborn, Mich., in comments
echoed by Bush administration officials who declined to be named.
When mayors and city managers gathered in New York on July 27 for the
National League of Cities working group on homeland security, several of them
expressed frustration. "A red box, blue box, yellow box is not going to tell
us what we need to know," Brenda Barger, mayor of Watertown, S.D., told
Ridge's representative across the table. "You know what people are doing?
They're blowing it off. We need to know what to do."
Joshua Filler, an aide to Ridge, replied that the mayor should determine
that for herself. "The community should decide, 'This is what we're going to
do at (risk advisory level) yellow,' " he said.
Susan Neely, Ridge's director of communications, acknowledged "that doesn't
seem to be a satisfactory answer to people."
In a telephone interview, Ridge said "there has been enough concern
expressed by the public" that Washington would have to address it. "People are
seeking good information . . ." he said. "I certainly anticipate talking about
it, because citizens want to know."
So recent is that decision that the National Strategy for Homeland Security,
released July 16, mentioned nothing about self-protection for individuals and
Nearly all government advice on terrorism sacrifices practical particulars
to an unalarming tone. The usual guidance is to maintain a three-day supply of
food and water along with a radio, flashlight, batteries and first aid kit.
The FEMA-produced materials do not mention whether, why or when to evacuate,
and they do not advise the public to keep plastic sheeting and duct tape
available to prepare a "safe room" if directed by authorities. Federal
research on chemical weapons found life-saving benefits in "simple taping and
sealing," which cuts exposure to outdoor agents by a factor of 10.
There is also no published government advice for self-protection in the
event of a "dirty bomb," which might scatter radioactive debris. Jane Orient,
president of Doctors for Disaster Preparedness, said a rule of thumb could be
offered in a dozen words: "You need to have mass between yourself and the
source of radiation."
Ridge said FEMA, once absorbed into Bush's proposed department of homeland
security, would be "a natural agency to give more specific (advice) to prepare
for a more specific terrorist event. They're not there yet."
No government agency recommends that individuals buy respiratory filters.
Yet a 324-page study at the Oak Ridge labs, evaluating over 1,000 scenarios
for evacuation, shelter and respiratory protection, found that inexpensive
filter masks "may be used to significantly reduce exposure" to chemical
warfare agents and some biological threats, including anthrax.
© 2002 Washington Post Company