Nobody is ever prepared for an event of the magnitude of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Two weeks later, all Americans -- even those who did not lose loved ones in the tragedies -- are still recovering. On the local front, that recovery includes evaluating the preparation and response of metro area officials to the events of Sept. 11 and to the threat of future disasters.
Area governments, law enforcement and school districts get high marks for pre-emptive strikes against extremists on the home front. To the relief and surprise of both the Arab-American and Muslim communities in the metro area, local officials acted quickly to prevent retaliatory assaults by misguided vigilantes against mosques and innocent individuals. Jefferson Parish Public Schools Superintendent Elton Lagasse deserves special praise for his decision to close schools for one day to prevent continued harassment of students of Middle Eastern descent.
However, local officials get low grades for failing to adequately inform the public on how they can prepare for terrorist assaults. By presstime last week, officials still had not adequately disseminated critical safety information.
For example, do you know how to protect yourself and your loved ones in the event that terrorists causes the release of a deadly chemical gas? Answer: the same way you would in event of an accidental toxic spill. You can either evacuate the area or take the set of precautions called "shelter in place," which is the emergency response generally favored by local emergency officials in the event of an airborne release of toxic chemicals such as chlorine or ammonia.
"Shelter in place" asks citizens to stay indoors until officials say it's safe to leave. To prevent infusions of deadly gas, citizens are instructed to close windows and doors, and place wet towels in any crevices. Further instructions include taping cracks or openings, closing fireplace dampers and turning off heating, air conditioning or ventilation systems. "In many cases, shelter in place is better than trying to have everyone evacuate at once and running into the streets," New Orleans Fire Department Chief Warren McDaniels says.
Environmentalists disagree, calling the strategy "die in place." Says Daryl Malek-Wiley, chair of the New Orleans Group Sierra Club: "Most of the houses in New Orleans are not airtight. If we have a serious enough cloud, it's going to get into the house. The possibilities are catastrophic."
Adds Paul Templet, a professor of environmental sciences and former secretary of the state Department of Environmental Quality: "If you have a plume of chlorine and it surrounds your house, I think you're gone."
Trouble is, most New Orleanians are not even aware of the debate, much less their options. And the potential locally for a deadly gas release is a real threat during both wartime and peace. Of all the sites in Louisiana, the "chemical corridor" is among the most likely targets for a potential terrorist attack, says Andrea Talentino, a Tulane University political science professor who teaches courses in covert operations.
New Orleans is the largest city along the corridor, a 100-mile stretch featuring dozens of chemical plants on both sides of the Mississippi River. Our chemical corridor is among the three most densely populated in the nation, along with Texas and New Jersey. Rail cars, barges, ships, trucks and pipelines all transport deadly chemicals through the region.
Fire Chief McDaniels acknowledges the need for more awareness, but adds that "our local emergency planning committee, our 911 commission and our fire department all try as best we can to disseminate (emergency) information."
But the word is not getting out. The chief should ask his boss, the mayor, for help.
For starters, we recommend a simple press release incorporating tips from the "terrorism fact sheet" posted on the Web site for the Louisiana Office of Emergency Preparedness (OEP). On its site (www.loep.state.la.us.), the state OEP discusses preparations for a building explosion, a chemical attack and even a bomb threat.
Residents of Jefferson Parish, which has more chemical plants than New Orleans, are better prepared in the event of a toxic gas release. But like New Orleanians, they may need to turn to the state OEP when it comes to tips for a terrorist assault.
"We weren't planning to publish any such tips," says Walter Maestri, director of the parish Department of Emergency Management. However, the parish has a hazardous materials coordinator who is solely responsible for alerting residents in the event of a toxic release.
The parish also has a "call-down" program that phones residents in affected areas automatically in the event of a hazardous materials release. Both emergency measures are funded by fees levied on business and industry. Terry Tullier, interim chief of the Orleans Parish Office of Emergency Preparedness, says his office is working on a similar emergency phone system.
Our officials must turn their attention immediately to protecting our citizens. We already face the seasonal threat of hurricanes and the constant danger of chemical spills. Now, we also must consider what we would do in the event of more terrorist attacks.