City Paper is not for tourists
March 20, 1997. 5:59 p.m.: The man looks no different from any other government lawyer trudging in and out of Metro Center. Suit, tie, grimace. Carrying a large, heavy suitcase, he seems to be on his way to Union Station for a business trip. No one looks closely enough to see the hundred tiny holes punched in the suitcase.
He waits until the floor lights begin flashing, then says a final prayer to himself. He rests the suitcase on the platform, reaches inside, and flicks on a small battery-powered fan screwed to one side. Its quiet whir is lost in the shuffle. He closes the case and then pushes down on the modified handle, poking holes in the bloated plastic bag that’s also in the case. A concentrated chemical gas seeps from the bag, and the fan blows it through the perforations.
The Red Line train glides in, swooshing the invisible aerosol throughout the station. No can sense anything yet. “Doors closing,” the electronic Metro lady says.
A few minutes later, as these commuters arrive at Dupont Circle, it hurts them to breathe. Suddenly, everyone is talking about the same thing. By Woodley Park, their nostrils sting, then bleed, and people scream at the sight of the blood. Some rush from the train, and the Woodley station manager frantically calls 911. The confused driver steps from the train holding a reddened tissue to her face.
Within minutes, some riders have fallen to the floor, and they begin puking up bubbles of frothy mess. As the sarin gas they inhaled courses through them, it acts on enzymes at the junction of muscles and nerves, causing convulsions. The train driver falls in a seizure as her train disgorges the remaining twitching and bleeding commuters. Eventually, chemical overstimulation turns convulsions to paralysis. Hearts stop a few minutes later, and the victims begin to die. The man with the perforated suitcase is among them.
At the District’s Emergency Command and Communications Center at the corner of 14th and U Streets NW, the phones light up. Even on ordinary days, the center takes 1,100 phone calls transferred from 911 operators. Today, the entire city is calling.
After the first confused reports come from the Red Line stations, the center sends police and ambulances to Woodley Park for what sounds like a train crash. But some of these “first responders” themselves become sickthe sarin aerosol has floated from the train to the station to the blocks outsideand the police call for backup. Eventually, the fire department’s Hazmat Unit arrives at Woodley Park. Capt. Thomas Johnson, a large man with 25 years’ experience in the department, steps from the hazmat truck in full “Level A” geara sealed spacesuit and mask.
He operates the department’s Saw Minicad, a handheld detector of chemical agents. Though the minicad arrived only in Januaryjust in time for the inaugurationthe experienced Johnson knows how to use the device. With horror, he detects a nerve agent and recommends that the full-scale chemical-biological response plan take effect.
Another precious 20 minutes pass as unprotected police and fire officials retreat, don their own spacesuits and masks, and return to the scene. The hazmat truck comes equipped with a dozen royal-blue Level A suits, but others must be retrieved from across town at the fire station near the Rhode Island Avenue Metro.
Authorities begin evacuating the blocks along the Connecticut Avenue corridor, and as the hour mark approaches, nearly 100 officials are finally on the scene preparing to gather evidence, treat victims, and begin decontamination. Following established procedure, the mayor officially declares an emergency, and federal officialsFBI agents, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials, and dozens of othersalso arrive.
But soon they hear reports that people are sick on the Mall. As they will learn later, another terrorist has rented a Tidal Basin paddle boat and activated a crude device similar to the one in the suitcase. The southerly winds aren’t cooperating, however, so fewer people will die. But in the uncertain atmosphere, some emergency officials think a bigger catastrophe is brewing downtown.
No one is sure what to do, and the lines of authority are unclear. How many firetrucks should go downtown? How many police? Where do the medical personnel concentrate their efforts? The FBI official in charge begins arguing with the city’s Office of Emergency Preparedness (OEP) officials and the FEMA incident chief. The FBI is supposed to direct “crisis management,” and FEMA “consequence management,” but those two terms seem meaningless in the chaos: Who can tell if the crisisthe actual attackhas ended and the consequencedeath and destructionhas begun? No decision is made for 10 costly minutes.
One of the worried officials asks about the Metropolitan Medical Strike Team, a special local unit comprised of three rotating task forces, each with 43 members trained to provide medical help specifically during chem-bio incidents. But the strike team won’t begin operating until June 1. Most team members must undergo 60 to 70 more hours of training.
The District calls for help from other jurisdictions, but the city must also turn to its own firefighters and policewho, outside the special ranks of the elite police and fire emergency teams, have had only partial hazmat training. (All D.C. firefighters were scheduled to undergo 16 more hours of chem-bio training this month.)
Mid-Atlantic military installationsparticularly those at Fort Detrick, in Maryland, and Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina, have special chem-bio response capabilities, but the legal concerns of how to command the troops in a domestic incident still haven’t been settled. The Red Cross is ready to provide assistance, but officials aren’t sure where it should begin. The White House calls and asks who is in charge. No one knows the answer.
Meanwhile, most of the Washington area’s 3.8 million residents have heard initial media reports about the incidents (two reporters have died because they rushed in without proper protective equipment). Because the city has failed to install chemical monitoring devices around town, no one is sure where the gas is drifting. Panic sets in as thousands of people climb into their cars and head out of town and to hospitals. Like most D.C. hospitals, George Washington University’s medical center is quickly overrun with scores of actual sick people from downtown and thousands more who only fear they are ill.
Dr. Joseph Barbera, head of emergency medicine at GW, struggles to handle the crush and implement the hospital’s emergency plan. But it’s a logistical nightmare, as he knew it would be, to try to decontaminate so many people. As fast as they can, doctors and nurses run citizens through decontamination showers. Visibly sick people get more careful treatment. Meanwhile, the roadways are packed with berserk drivers. Another eight people will die in traffic accidents over the next four hours.
Overall, 800 Washington-area residents will die from chemical exposure within the first 24 hours. Another 11,000 will be injured. Downtown will be an uninhabitable, locked-down wasteland for a week. Metro will be shut even longer. Two years later, a congressional study will find that perhaps a third of the victims could have been saved with more preparation, coordination, and training.
A doomsday scenario? Sure. But not an unrealistic one. Since the Tokyo attack two years ago this monthwhich killed “only” 12 because the sarin was prepared and released haphazardlyfederal and local authorities have begun to realize that the United States, and particularly the District of Columbia, need to do more to prepare for a chemical or biological attack.
But for political and financial reasons, those officials have only recently begun to train, equip, and fund forces designed to respond to such an attack. Last year, Congress asked for more preparations, but the Clinton administration has been slow to act. Its foot-dragging matters nowhere more than in Washington, the prime target for anyone who hates the United States or its government. Although the city should lead the nation in preparedness, those privy to the city’s response capabilities say its reaction to a chemical or biological attack might be no more impressive that its blundering reply to the Blizzard of ’96.
“A lot of the training and the chem-bio expertise that was supposed to be brought to bear in local jurisdictions just has not occurred,” says a federal government source with access to classified emergency-planning documents. “If something did go off by, say, Union Station, there’s not a lot of confidence that the way the various personnel who would be deployed is going to work very well….If we’re the model [for the nation], that’s probably not very encouraging.”
Even longtime FEMA spokesman Phil Cogan concedes that the Washington area needs to do more. “I’d be trying to pull one over on you if I said that we were currently as prepared as we need to be for the use of some weapons of mass destruction,” says Cogan.
Local “first responders”the men and women who would be on the front line after such an attackput the matter more succinctly: “Trust me, I’m scared to death of it,” says a high-ranking D.C. firefighter familiar with the department’s training. “We would be ill-prepared.”
Even the Secret Service is worriedenough that its agents have tried to develop plans to protect the president during a chem-bio attack, according to Jane’s Defence Weekly, a respected British publication that covers the defense industry.
Why worry? The Soviet Union is gone, and with it the major nuclear threat to the U.S. We’re not at war. And terrorists have never used a chemical or biological weapon, here or anywhere else, before or after Tokyo.
But tell that to the residents of Oklahoma City, or the injured victims at the World Trade Center. More recently, TWA Flight 800 inexplicably exploded, and three bombs have detonated in Atlanta, injuring scores of residents and killing two. Recently, parts of both National and BWI Airports were evacuated after mysterious, sickening odors drifted through terminals. Although none of these incidents involved chemical or biological weapons”weapons of mass destruction,” in Pentagonesesuch weapons could be used here.
It would take a few thousand dollars’ worth of commercially available lab equipment, a chemistry or biology degree, and lots of determination to make a devastating weapon in your garage. It’s by no means impossible. With a better education, Timothy McVeigh could have wiped out Oklahoma City, not just the federal building he allegedly blew up.
A few potential terrorists have already been caught. In spring 1995, a few weeks after Tokyo, authorities nabbed white supremacist Larry Harris after he faked an order to a Rockville lab for bubonic plague. Harris was discovered only by accident, and at the time, acquiring the organismwhich slaughtered three-fourths of 14th-century Europewas perfectly legal. Police could only charge Harris with fraud for improperly using a laboratory’s letterhead.
Authorities also discovered right-wing nuts in Minnesota and Arkansas stockpiling ricin, a toxin made from castor beans that’s lethal even in small doses. Police caught the men, whose efforts were unrelated, but acknowledge that they probably have not caught many more people collecting biological and chemical agents.
Last year, Congress tightened restrictions on the possession of certain human pathogens, including ricin and Yersinia pestis, which causes plague. The Anti-Terrorism Act created new regulations on transporting such agents, but the regulations won’t take effect until April 15. Even then, there won’t be any guarantee that labs will give biological agents only to the right folks. “To a certain extent, [we] are relying on the integrity of the laboratory,” says Margaret Tipple, a Centers for Disease Control physician helping to implement the new regulations. “There’s going to be an element of an honor system.” Bottom line: Ordering bubonic plague will soon be tougher than getting chinos from J. Crew, but still not impossible.
Chemical agents are arguably easier to come by than biologicals. Legitimate industrial and medical suppliers can send you what you need to make sarinand there are no new regs covering those basic materials. It’s not even illegal to make a chemical weaponthough if you use it to poison your neighbor (or 10,000 of your neighbors, for that matter) you could, of course, be prosecuted. Pending legislation in Congress would ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention and ban possession of chemical nerve agents. But right-wing senators have held up the ratification for years on the theory that the convention will do nothing to stymie outlaw nations that stash chemical agents.
To make matters worse, it’s easier than ever to learn how to synthesize the toxins. Scientific papers have contained the production processes for years, but their circulation has been limited. More recently, Paladin and Delta, two small publishing houses, have sold chem-bio “cookbooks” such as Assorted Nasties. Officials also worry about the Internet. Sites marked “Uncle Fester” apparently contain recipes for chemical agents. (Though a recent Net search yielded 6,700 hits for “Uncle Fester,” most of them harmless hippie sites on music and LSD.)
Nukes are also worrisome, though less so because they can’t really be made in the comfort of your home. In December 1995, Chechen rebels planted radioactive nuclear material in a Moscow park. The nuclear matter didn’t hurt anyone, but the rebels’ attempt highlighted the lack of controls over nuclear materials in the former Soviet Union. Reports of nuclear smuggling frequently leak from the country. Western intelligence has also learned that the Soviets were producing secret chemical and biological weapons into the late ’80s.
In short, the information and technology required to flatten or maim Washington have never been more available. But is anyone really willing to try? Law enforcement and foreign-policy types aren’t sure, but they point to two warning signs: Terrorism has become much bloodier in the last 25 years, as the number of terrorist bombings has nearly doubled while less deadly forms of terrorism, like hijackings, have occurred less frequently.
In addition, many of the groups seen as likely sources of terrorism subscribe to apocalyptic religious views (Aum Shinrikyo is a prime example). Such groups will probably grow antsy as the millennium approaches. (It may not be a bad idea to find a nice bed-and-breakfast for the evening of Dec. 31, 1999in Nebraska. And rebook it for the next year, since terrorist nerds will note that the official start of the millennium is Jan. 1, 2001.)
But in general, academics and government officials aren’t sure what all this means. For years, according to Brad Roberts of the Alexandria-based Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute, many academics didn’t even study chem-bio terrorism. “We started getting calls after Tokyo from reporters, and we realized we didn’t know exactly what to tell them,” he says. “There was essentially nothing to read on this subject.”
The institute partially remedied that problem by publishing Terrorism With Chemical and Biological Weapons in January. A dry volume, the book includes 10 essays by leading terrorism scholars and concludes that a large-scale incident like the one described abovein which hundreds or thousands of Washingtonians dieis possible, just
Roberts summarizes the complex calculus this way: “It’s essential not to overstate or understate this problem. It’s undoubtedly true that the risks of terrorism with chemical and biological weapons are going up. They may not be very high. They may not be going up very fast. We don’t know….But the militia movement, some of our most fanatic overseas opponents, and others of a more criminal type have shown a greater interest in chemical and biological agents.”
As another writer concludes: “It is inevitable…that [chemical and biological weapons, or CBW] will reach the hands of a terrorist or a rogue nation that will consider the use of CBW to be a legitimate act of war.” Yet another writer notes that “most scenarios” focus on targets in the District.
The District, of course, can’t even recycle your Washington City Paper right now. The new terrorist threat couldn’t come at a worse time for a city already dealing with the disaster of broken government. In part because they are themselves scared, D.C.’s emergency planners have done the best they could. But with declining city budgets and little federal direction so far, they have only just begun.
Any emergency response in the city would be coordinated by its Office of Emergency Preparedness, a little agency of 35 employees based in the Reeves Center at 14th and U. OEP has undergone its own emergency in the 1990s: From 1990 to 1996, it suffered a 53-percent cut in city appropriations, from $2.7 million to $1.3 million. (Federal grants have increased to replace some of the loss, but much of the grant money is earmarked for blizzards and floods, not planning or training.) OEP’s staff has declined from 73 full-time positions in 1990.
At the same time, the number of crisis calls OEP handles has skyrocketed from 310,000 in 1992 to 504,000 last year. (The city’s 911 operators transfer most of these calls to OEP, which in turn assigns a D.C. agency to deal with each caller’s problem.) In addition, the number of emergency-response incidents has soared from 260 in 1994 to 330 last year, a 27-percent increase in two years.
Washington isn’t really 27 percent more dangerous now than in 1994. Rather, hard-hit city residents have demanded that more and more incidents be treated as emergenciesOEP frequently gets calls from citizens who are hungry. Some activists have asked that the agency also address street violence, so agency officials have spoken to schoolkids since 1994 about avoiding gangs and guns.
Meanwhile, OEP has had to slice the number of participants in its training exercises from 1,700 in 1994 to 1,200 last year. There are also fewer training activities each year. And the agency has been trying to get $25,000 to refurbish its mobile command-and-communications van, but the funds haven’t come through.
Last year, OEP asked the D.C. Council for an additional 10 full-time positions and an extra $400,000 “to maintain a state of readiness.” It didn’t get it. Agency staffers say they feel the extra work every day. “My days and nights have a tendency to run together,” telecommunications chief William Curry said recently.
Policymakers say there just isn’t enough money for OEP. “Prior to me, their budget was reduced, but I thought it should not be reduced any further,” says former At-Large Councilmember Bill Lightfoot, who chaired the Judiciary Committee. That committee oversees OEP, along with the police and fire departments.
Lightfoot actually did preside over the committee when OEP suffered a small reduction, but the major tumble in funding came during the Kelly administration, when then-Councilmember Jim Nathanson chaired the committee. Current committee Chairman Jack Evans says he’s not sure yet what will happen with OEP’s budget. He says the council hasn’t yet discussed the new terrorist threats to the city. “This issue just hasn’t popped up at all,” he says. “It’s never even come up in my meetings with police.”
Not all of OEP’s problems have been budgetary. In 1995, Mayor Marion Barry undercut the serious nature of OEP’s mission by dumping pal Rhozier Brown, a convicted murderer, onto its payroll. For about a year, Brown officially worked at OEP but was “detailed” to the mayor’s office. (Lightfoot deleted Brown’s position from OEP’s budget early last year.) Mismanagement has also plagued OEP in recent years. A 1995 D.C. auditor’s report called OEP’s organization “cumbersome” and revealed that someone had stolen $10,000 in equipment from the agency.
OEP Director Samuel Jordan refused to discuss this story “because of the nature of it,” according to agency spokesman Zachary Smith. But Smith optimistically says that none of OEP’s problems has affected its response capabilities. “I don’t think the state of readiness is compromised,” he says. But, he adds, “we do have to work a lot harder to maintain that readiness.”
OEP is developing Districtwide plans for a terrorist incident. The plans, which won’t be ready until later this year, will be added to the city’s massive Emergency Operations Plan. OEP officials have attended about five training exercises in the last two years that included chem-bio scenarios, Smith says. One was a full-blown exercise in September called “Terminal Breeze.” In that drill, about 100 D.C. and federal officials pretended terrorists had detonated a chemical weapon in a Metro station.
In a similar exercise in New York in 1994, most of the responders “died” in the mock incident because they rushed in without proper gear. Smith says Terminal Breeze was successful, but other participants noted that it occurred mostly in a classroom, not in the field. FEMA held another major chem-bio exercise in June at its mountainside facility in Berryville, Va. About 120 D.C.-area officials attended that exercise, including Johnson, the fire department’s hazmat leader, as well as OEP officials. That weeklong program also involved mostly “tabletop” training.
D.C.’s budget woes haven’t hit the city’s first responders quite as hard as OEP. The D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department has undertaken extensive training for generic hazmat incidents, and most of that training would be useful in a terrorist incident involving chemical weapons (although some biological weapons require more specialized training). Though launched only in 1988, the hazmat unit has become one of the department’s highest priorities, says Johnson, its leader. “We’ve done a lot more to prepare for hazmat, chemical, biologicalall those incidentsthan people think,” he adds, noting that 168 department employees have received at least some hazmat training in the last two years.
A recent tour of the hazmat vehicles in storage at Rhode Island Avenue revealed a mixture of old and newsome protective suits still sealed in their original green-topped containers, and some obviously used before. The new stuffincluding two fancy chemical detectorsarrived only in January, but Johnson says everyone in the hazmat unit knew how to use it all by Inauguration Day. “We had a one-day intensive training before the event, and we were prepared,” he says.
Johnson, 48, inspires confidence, but departmentwide, some resources are stretched nearly to the breaking point. The city has just three rescue squads, one fewer than it did three years ago, and the number of emergency medical personnel has dropped slightly since 1991. Meanwhile, emergency medical incidents have edged up slightly during the same period. No doubt Johnson and the members of his unit would perform as well as they could if terrorists hit the city with a chemical or biological agent. But would they have the equipment to do their jobs? “Right now, we are as prepared as humanly possible,” Johnson answers. Says another D.C. firefighter: “I hope he’s right.”
The Metropolitan Police Department refused to provide any information about its terrorist response capabilities, but other sources note that a few D.C. police officers have trained with FBI agents. Jane’s recently noted that the Army’s school for chemical defense has trained at least one group of Metro police.
“But it’s the FBI who would really handle that,” says a police spokesman. “Call them.”
Indeed, local emergency planners note that they have traditionally followed guidelines written by the feds. But so far, the federal government has itself been unsure how to address the new terrorist threats. Though Congress set aside more money last yeara staggering half-billion dollars for new anti-terrorism programsit’s not yet clear how those millions will be spent. According to interviews with a dozen federal officials, at this point it will take months, if not years, to develop a properly coordinated response.
A key element of the response will be the top-secret “Terrorism Incident Annex” being developed for the nation’s Federal Response Plana giant set of procedures guiding the government’s reaction to everything from a bad snowstorm to a nuclear attack. The annex isn’t ready yet, though FEMA officials say it’s in the “final comments” stage.
Nationally, at least five Metropolitan Medical Strike Teams, the elite, highly trained task forces designed to deal with chemical and biological emergencies, will be another critical component. A strike team will be particularly crucial for Washington because the city has no urban search-and-rescue unit, a basic part of many cities’ response plans.
But the Washington area’s medical strike teamthe first in the nationwon’t be ready until June. The full team hasn’t yet staged its first field exercise (though some members participated in an eight-hour field exercise prior to the inauguration). And although team members insist they will be ready on schedule, the team missed an expected deadline last year. Federal officials say they hope to have similar teams in New York and Los Angeles by year’s end, but they make no concrete promises.
Other preparations are also being discussed but not implemented. Some preparedness specialists have said for more than a year that the federal government should install field detectors in D.C. to measure suspicious chemical and biological agents in the air. (Such detectors could significantly reduce response times.) None has been installed, and officials are debating whether they will work well or simply frighten people.
Only one city hospitalVeteranshas stockpiled antisera and antibiotics for a chem-bio emergency. Yet a group of hospital emergency planners has designated another facilityChildren’sto serve as the communications center during a citywide emergency. (According to one of the planners, the group felt that Children’s would be the least overwhelmed medical facility during a crisis.)
In general, federal and local experts agree on two points: 1.) Because of inaugural preparations, D.C. is better prepared for a chem-bio attack than most cities, and 2.) That’s not saying much. “I’ll tell you,” says OEP spokesman Smith, “it’s the kind of thing where all of us have our fingers crossed and hope that nothing happens.”
Hope, it must be said, does have a good track record. From the mid-1950s until the late ’80s, the period when Americans and Soviets were aiming thousands of warheads at each other, nothing happened. By the late ’60s, most Americans realized that you couldn’t do much in a nuclear attack except “bend overand kiss your ass goodbye,” as the joke went.
But there was a golden age of “civil defense”a dozen or so years when communities built shelters and warning sirens and drew up evacuation plans in case the reds pushed the Button. In 1959, for example, the Office of Civil Defense Mobilization set aside $2.5 milliona colossal sum at the timeto build 150 fallout shelters.
Many still exist, including the first one in D.C. In July 1960, the Luchs family used a $2,500 grant to construct the shelter in their Appleton Street NW home. A cinder-block hovel about 8 feet wide and 10 feet long, the shelter was added to the basement, and an extra bedroom was built above it to accommodate Barbara Luchs’ unexpected twins. Now 73, she still lives in the house, but the shelter isn’t what it used to be.
For years, Luchs and her husband, who died in 1979, kept it stocked with food, water, and other supplies. A hand crank attached to a goose-neck pipe brought in filtered air. The Luchses gave weekly tours to residents curious about constructing their own shelters. But demand for tours vanished after a couple of years, and Barbara Luchs stopped stocking the shelter around 1970. Eventually it became a wine cellar, and now it’s packed ceiling-high with boxes and old furniture. “You’ll have to bat away these spider webs,” she says as she walks through the 2-foot-wide passageway.
It’s an apt metaphor for old-style civil defense. For years, area governments maintained a network of federally funded warning sirens. But local leaders decided in 1987 to stop using them for weather warnings, and FEMAthough it spent several hundred thousand dollars to upgrade the sirens in the late ’80shad also abandoned them by 1990. (We now rely solely on the Emergency Broadcasting System.)
After President Reagan and many of his civil defense-era appointments left office, the federal government stopped looking for sites appropriate for nuclear shelters. These “shelter surveys” were expensive and, it was deemed, useless, since Congress had stopped appropriating money to stock the shelters in the late ’70s. (This caused its own problems. Emergency officials found themselves with literally tons of food and supplies no longer authorized for the shelters. One official, Alexandria Emergency Preparedness Coordinator Charles McRorie, found a Florida hog farmer willing to send a truck to Northern Virginia, collect thousands of crackers, and drive them back to feed his livestock. Government officials had worried that the crackers were so old they might make people sick, but “to my knowledge, not a pig died,” McRorie says.)
By now, Americans had forgotten about the old civil defense plans anywaythough the plans were never terribly popular. As early as the late ’60s, anti-war protesters mocked the “duck-and-cover” routine taught to schoolchildren. Most people also viewed evacuation plans with ridicule. “‘How are we supposed to get out of D.C. when traffic is tied up on normal days?’ That’s what everyone said,” recalls Luchs, who worked for the engineer who devised D.C.’s evacuation routes.
In the 1970s, still issuing endless estimates of “burn rates” and “energy release per square mile” after a nuclear blast, the Office of Civil Defense began to seem like a diabolical jokegovernment-funded black comedy. The reasons we needed civil defense became fuzzy, as did the reasons we needed to spend millions updating the Nuclear Attack Planning Base every few years. Its conclusion was always the same: complete annihilation. But euphemistic talk of “lethality thresholds” always hid the depressing truth.
Sensing the office’s irrelevance, President Carter ordered a reorganization in 1979, and FEMA was born from the Office of Civil Defense and four other vintage agencies. Local governments, including the District’s, followed suit by turning civil defense offices into “emergency preparedness” offices.
The new nomenclature signaled a deeper, conceptual change: Beginning in the early 1980s, a group of young turks at FEMA said we should stop thinking about what to do in a nuclear attack apart from what to do in a hurricane, or what to do in a riot. They began developing an “all-hazards” approach that emphasized preparedness for any of a million contingencies. We weren’t to focus on the cause but on the consequence. Yes, FEMA went postmodern.
But Republicans didn’t much like the fancy new approachtoo much civil and not enough defense, they thought. So FEMA and its state-level counterparts (which more or less mimic FEMA’s every move) changed very slowly until 1993. Funds remained stovepiped for different purposesand nuclear-attack planning still got zillions.
It would take Bill Clinton and Cox Newspapers to kill old-fashioned civil defense once and for all. In 1993, reporters from the Cox-owned Palm Beach Post completed a six-month investigation of FEMA. Floridians hated the agency for its lackluster response to 1992’s Hurricane Andrew. The story revealed that FEMA had spent $1.3 billion in the previous decade “on a top-secret program to protect the government in a nuclear war.” (The program’s oh-so-perfect mastermind? Oliver North.) Meanwhile, FEMA had spent just $243 million on natural-disaster planning.
The figures were a little misleadingthe Post failed to mention millions in congressional disaster-relief money that passes through FEMA on its way to states. But the gist was correct, and FEMA got slaughtered. The story prompted Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland to introduce massive reform legislation. It also came up in confirmation hearings for James Lee Witt, Clinton’s pick to head the agency.
Mikulski’s legislation failed, but Witt implemented many of her changes anyway. Now FEMA officials pretty much only discuss the all-hazards approach, and the agency’s disaster-planning money is pooled together. To take a concrete example, the Post had whined at length that FEMA wasn’t using Mobile Emergency Response Support units (called MERS in bureaucratese) to coordinate relief efforts after natural disasters (top-secret MERS was reserved only for nuclear emergencies). But since Clinton took office, according to agency spokesman Cogan, MERS has been used “hundreds of times.”
In general, Clinton has revved up FEMA spending on disaster relief, which just happens to be incredibly popular with voters. (FEMA responded to a record number of disasters last year, which just happened to be an election year.) This year, FEMA has requested $3.2 billion from Congress, according to Cogan, of which $2.75 billion will go for relief.
But something terrible happened on the way to FEMA’s reincarnation as a welfare agencyTokyo. And somehow, a heart-stopping nerve agent, or a flesh-eating bacterium, didn’t seem to fit the “all-hazards” approach.
Not much happened in the few months after Tokyo. Curiously, news coverage of the event lacked punch, and few “Could it happen here?” stories appeared (the Washington Post, for instance, ran no such story).
For its part, FEMA was reluctant to alter the successful formula it had developed under Witt. By March 1995, when Tokyo was attacked, FEMA had become more popular, both around the country and on the Hill. According to agency insiders, many of the political appointees feared that reverting to a civil defense mode would reverse that trend.
“Look, Congress wanted FEMA to change [from its civil defense days],” says a Clinton administration official. “If there’s a course correction required, it’s going to have to come from the Hill. And Congress has made it clear it doesn’t want to do that. Their constituentspublic opinion on this point is clearhave said, ‘Shift your resources. Deal with the high-probability events like hurricanes and floods.’ The media and the public and Congress have all said, ‘Get your act together on those events.’ So we have.”
FEMA’s broader mission may have endeared it to the public, but it hasn’t addressed the growing threat from terrorists, here and elsewhere. Finally, last year, three senatorsSam Nunn (D-Ga.), Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), and Pete Domenici (R-N.M.)did address the new terrorist threats, holding several hearings and authoring amendments requiring the Pentagon to develop quick-response teams for domestic chem-bio incidents. The amendments also required the president to appoint a national coordinator for terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction.
But Clinton hasn’t done so. “The thing that people are starting to get nervous about is the lack of coordination,” says a federal government source familiar with the administration’s response. “There’s a real mess.” Specifically, the source says, many local officials have requested help from the military with training and equipment, but little has been done to link military officers with local firefighters or cops (the D.C. police training at the Army’s chemical defense school is the exception, not the rule).
One arm of the federal government that has extensively planned for chemical and biological attack is, of course, the military. Especially since the Gulf War, the Pentagon has dumped millions into new research and equipment, as well as already established units like two Army Medical Research Institutes. In addition, last year the Marines formed a Chemical/Biological Incident Response Force (CBIRF), designed to respond to attacks on U.S. posts overseas. Imagine what the Marines could do to help the troubled D.C. fire department.
But no one is sure whether CBIRF could or even should be used domestically. Legal concerns generally prevent much direct military action on U.S. soil, and CBIRF, for one, is designed to treat a few young soldiers, not thousands of civilians. (For its part, the D.C. National Guard has undertaken no special chem-bio training.) Even if the armed forces could be used, the military isn’t fully prepared. According to a Pentagon report cited by Jane’s, “very few” military programs in the chem-bio field are “structured for an immediate response.”
On top of those complications, an old-fashioned turf war is now raging over who would command the various federal forces, civilian and military. The FBI, for one, wants to “claim the mission,” the government source says, and the bureau “may be trying to claim some of the new money [appropriated by Congress for anti-terrorism activities] to create equipment and expertise that is duplicative of what is out there already,” mostly in the military.
FBI officials apparently feel that Presidential Decision Directive 39 gives them the required authority. Devised by the president last year to establish a chain of command in terrorist incidents, the directive gave the FBI authority over “crisis management” and FEMA authority over “consequence management.” “But, you know, that’s not been tested in the field,” says the source. “Out there, what part is crisis and what part is consequence hasn’t been made clear.” What if the FBI needs to gather evidence, but FEMA is trying to save lives? Who is in whose way?
The FBI wouldn’t comment, but FEMA’s Cogan says the system will work. “We feel that the relationships defined by Congress and clarified by the president in PDD 39 are very clear,” he says. “We think the policies and plans provide guidelines that have flexibility, because ultimately it’s up to commanders in the field to make decisions.” Cogan says FEMA and the FBI have always cooperated successfully in high-pressure “standby” scenarios like the inauguration and the Olympics.
Still, he does admit that it’s a new world. “Until recently, there hasn’t been much official guidance on the responses to terrorism,” Cogan says. “We’re going to continue to build on it.”
It’s impossible to quantify just how vulnerable we are. Our biggest asset right now is the sheer difficulty of mounting an attack using chemical or biological weapons. Not too many terrorist groups could overcome the technological barriers. And even assuming that those barriers are shrinking, it’s not clear that any group would want to slay so many civilians. (If you think the U.S. government responded too harshly at Waco or Ruby Ridge, imagine the response against a terrorist group after Washington choked in a sarin cloud.)
In addition, emergency planners agree that two years from now Washington will be perhaps the most prepared city in the world. By 1999, a state-of-the-art emergency command center will be completed in Montgomery County to handle regionwide disasters, including terrorism. The Metropolitan Medical Strike Team should be ready for action even sooner. FEMA has also given the District about $800,000 to upgrade chem-bio protective and measuring equipment. And the D.C. Fire Department plans more hazmat training specifically focusing on chem-bio weapons (though the department won’t receive the FEMA-funded equipment until later this year).
Meanwhile, it will take some time for most Americans to get used to hearing about “civil defense” again. The government’s use of the term still sounds odd, as though the fashion industry had announced with a straight face that fedoras were coming back next season. Indeed, the flacks at FEMA and other agencies sometimes avoid the ridiculed term, preferring to cast the terrorist threat as just another emergency. Clinton administration and local officials say they don’t like talking about the topic for fear of panicking people (see sidebar, page 21).
But Tokyo and more recent terrorist incidents show that the large-scale use of chemical or biological weapons would be devastating in a way we haven’t considered since the 1950s. Today’s terrorist threat isn’t like the risk of complete thermonuclear devastation after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Rather, it’s more like the early days of the Cold War, when fewer, less precise atomic devices existed and it was believedhowever wishfullythat survival was possible.
Even in the worst chem-bio scenarios, the casualties are measured in thousands, not millions. Survival is possible, so there is something we can do. But will we want to? Probably not. As one Clinton official put it, “We can’t even get people [in low-lying areas] to buy flood insurance.” For many people, the only response to the new terrorist threat will be to dust off that old civil defense checklistthe one that ends, “kiss your ass goodbye.”
But others might heed a new call to defend their civilization. They might go buy duct tape and plastic to keep noxious gases out of their homes. They might try to acquire gas masks and spacesuits. They might plot an off-the-beaten-track evacuation route to the Shenandoahs. Strange as it may seem, one of these days, sometime soon, someone might knock on Barbara Luchs’ door again and ask to see the fallout shelter. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Jo Rivers.