News: CJ Exclusives

NC Not Ready for Terror Disaster

State, localities differ on security measures so far

While thousands of North Carolinians are fighting in and around Iraq to disarm Saddam Hussein and destroy his weapons of mass destruction, state and local emergency management professionals are waging a war on terrorism at home as the nation’s terror alert rises and citizens brace for potential terrorist attacks in response to military action.

Receiving direction and funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and its Secretary Tom Ridge, North Carolina planners, police officers, firefighters, and medical personnel are engaged in a deadly serious effort to deter, detect, and respond to potential calamities once considered unthinkable on American soil.

Plans for general disasters such as hurricanes and workplace shootings have been in place for years, but terrorism introduces new threats and scenarios that demand special training, new equipment, and additional money, those responsible for securing the state say.

State, local views at odds

Is North Carolina ready to handle the worst that terrorists may inflict? It depends on whom you ask. State planners say much progress has been made, but first responders at the local level tell a different story.

“I think it’s going quite well. Unless you’re in emergency management careers, you might not see a lot of these things,” said Don Needham, chief of the information and planning division of the state’s Crime Control and Public Safety Department, which oversees North Carolina’s interaction with federal Homeland Security officials and county emergency management offices.

That assessment is too rosy, said Dan Summers, director of emergency management for New Hanover County, a frequent target of hurricanes. “We are not braced for the new mass-casualty, mass-medical event,” Summers said with frustration in his voice. “It used to be we’d plan on 50 medical problems” in plans for major disasters. “Now it’s trying to find ways to deal with large numbers of casualties.”

A veteran of nearly 20 years of service, Summers is proud of his area’s readiness and said the county is better-prepared than most, since its rescue workers have received more FEMA training than those in other communities. “With limited resources, we have an effective and operational emergency management plan,” he said.

Not ready for catastrophe

Regardless, he contends those plans are vulnerable to terrorism and mass casualties, a lesson he learned from the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. In the aftermath he learned of a phenomenon he calls “the worried well.” Fewer than 200 major medical incidents stemmed from the World Trade Center collapse, a manageable number for emergency facilities, Summers said. But incredibly, at least an additional 3,000 victims, looking to use the phone, find loved ones, take showers, or be reassured they weren’t hurt, showed up.

What if those people had been contaminated by chemical or biological agents, Summers wondered. What would that have meant for everyone with whom they came in contact? “This is what communities are not braced for. We’re working at it, but nobody had thought pre 9/11 to even think about this,” Summers said. “It’s the number one impact for me.”

Summers complains that Department of Homeland Security funds, distributed previously through the Department of Justice, are getting too slowly to counties, where much of the nuts-and-bolts preparations are made. The only money to arrive so far is a 2002 grant from the Department of Justice, Summers said. Summers used the $64,000 to order protective masks and coveralls for 600 first-responders to an emergency. The items won’t arrive until May or June, and that delay is unacceptable, Summers said.

“It should be a no-brainer to get this,” he said. “We have been very disappointed in the way in which grants, brokered by the state, have come down to local governments. In my 18 years of emergency management, it has been the most cumbersome grant program I have ever worked with. Certainly, it’s not all the state’s fault.”

Summers’s funding concerns echo those of The Heritage Foundation’s Michael Scardaville, a policy analyst specializing in homeland security. While he praises Ridge’s efforts to coordinate efficiently with states and localities, he faults Congress. “They like to micromanage,” he said, referring to the earmarking of funds for specific purposes, the resulting inflexibility to local officials, and the cumbersome grant process. “These guys (state and local officials) have to spend time learning how to manage their grants. They shouldn’t have to do this. This should be one-grant process, not several. It should be for all hazards, not just for some,” Scardaville said.

Despite the bureaucratic maze, Summers is thankful for progress, and confident in the planning of New Hanover County’s Community Task Force, comprised of about 25 public safety, government, and health officials. The group focuses on threats possible in any community, but also on those specific to its coastline, including the port, nuclear plant, nuclear fuel facility, ammunition facility, and beaches.

In the mountains of Buncombe County, Summers’ counterpart, Jerry VeHaun, agrees there have been accomplishments, but he said he wishes preparations were moving faster in the Asheville area as well.

VeHaun, director of emergency services for the county, has focused on terrorism since the late 1990s. He attended terrorism prevention school three years ago. The training proved valuable as he watched the events of Sept. 11 unfold, he said. “It was a good course. I realized the things I needed to be concerned with,” VeHaun said of the new realities that emerged for his job. “It’s a lot different now. I knew on September 11th it was never going to be the same.”

Like Summers, VeHaun established a terrorism advisory committee and used a $60,000 Department of Justice grant to purchase personal protection gear. The gas masks and body suits should arrive soon, and VeHaun is planning a training exercise at the airport in June. The session will likely simulate a bio-terrorist attack or explosion. But VeHaun said a key accomplishment is the purchase of a new radio system that allows fire, emergency-management services, and sheriff’s personnel to talk to each other during an emergency. It solves a potentially deadly problem that investigators say plagued New York City’s emergency workers at the World Trade Center. The $3.2 million system, purchased with local dollars, will be in place July 1.

“There are so many unknowns: airborne, explosion, structure collapse. I feel good about being able to respond and secure an area,” he said. However, when it comes to “an exotic thing like a dirty bomb (a crude radioactive device),” detection and response are more complex, he said.

While VeHaun, Summers, and other local officials take action in their communities, the state is responsible for planning and coordination that affects all North Carolinians. For example, the state created the Office of Public Health, Preparedness and Response to oversee seven teams around the state that train county health workers to spot and treat symptoms of biological contamination. One is in New Hanover County and Summers said representatives attend task force meetings there and offer the resources of an industrial hygienist.

$13.9 million for North Carolina

“We’re doing the job we’ve always done,” Needham said. “What has changed is Congress has allotted more money.” The fiscal 2003 budget recently signed by President Bush included $13.9 million in first-responder funds for North Carolina. Congress left little flexibility on its use, dictating amounts for equipment, exercise, training, and planning. The state must submit a grant proposal by April 22. If approved on schedule, the funds should head to North Carolina in late May, and then go to localities.

Summers and VeHaun are anxious to use the grants to whittle their wish lists. The amount each will receive will be determined soon, said Patty McQuillan, public information officer at Crime Control and Public Safety Department.

In the meantime, VeHaun’s committee is developing a specific list for the state, which will probably include bomb suits for police officers and more communication equipment. Summers’ needs are similar: respiratory protection gear for New Hanover County’s police. “We have lots to be concerned about,” he said.

Martinez is an associate editor at Carolina Journal.