On Oct. 22, a letter arrived for a staff person at St. Luke's Addiction Recovery Center, a residential social service facility affiliated with Catholic Charities.
When the man opened his letter, a grayish-white powder spilled out. He knew what to do. He called 911. Then he walked into the shower in the office. He stepped out of the bathroom with no clothes on and was given a sheet to wrap around himself.
Meanwhile the residents and staff – 65 people in total – evacuated the facility, separating themselves into the group that had handled the letter and the group that had not come into contact with the letter.
Within minutes the fire department arrived, and crews with biohazard suits did a quick test on the substance. It came out negative, and so did a later culture.
It was a scare, not a harmful substance. But if the powder had been the potentially lethal bacteria anthrax, it's likely only one person would have been infected, said Bruce Netter, emergency manager for both Catholic Charities and the Archdiocese of Miami.
In Miami, Catholic Charities is the largest non-governmental social services provider. Emergency management is under the Catholic Charities Behavioral Health Care Division.
Netter, who also chairs the Florida Interfaith Interagency Network in Disaster as well as the Dade County Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, offers ongoing training to agencies he's affiliated with as well as area businesses.
St. Luke's Addiction Recovery Center responded so well to its anthrax scare that local fire officials were impressed, said Netter. "They said, 'Bruce, if only we could get everybody to respond like that.' "
Netter not only offers training but he also shows up for unannounced drills afterward. "Basically I show up at a program, walk in, and say 'An incident has just occurred.' It gives people confidence that they can respond quickly."
Disaster preparedness training is only going to work if it's put into practice with realistic drills, he said. And it's only effective if personnel are engaged in it, and that means not just sticking a book about preparedness on the office shelf.
"There are a lot of wonderful-looking plans sitting on bookshelves across America," he said.
"Canned" disaster preparedness materials are not only bland, they might not be applicable to each office, he added.
While St. Luke's Recovery Center had a shower, certainly not every facility does. "In that case, there should be gallon jugs of water available, and staff should know where those are," said Netter.
Lesli Remaly, a Miami-based Church World Service Disaster Response and Recovery Liaison, said the scare should be a reminder to every agency and office that local organizations can and should be prepared. "We need to know that we are still targets out there. And we need to be ready," she pointed out. "Sometimes even local churches can be targets if they take a certain political position, for example."
Anthrax hoaxes peaked shortly after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Two state workers in Connecticut were fired Monday for a 2001 anthrax hoax that forced evacuation of 800 people from an office building.
Just this month a long decontamination process ended at a New Jersey postal distribution center where four anthrax-laced letters passed through two years ago.
Lawmakers in Congress have introduced a bill to compensate those affected by the 2001 anthrax exposures. Many of those exposed continue to suffer debilitating health problems. And policymakers are still questioning the nation's ability to respond to public health threats.
Anthrax detection could become big business. A small Columbia, Md.-based company, Microcosm Inc., recently developed a way to detect anthrax – clothing patches that change colors when exposed to contaminants.
But Netter said that he sees his type of training as a ministry, not a moneymaker. "We don't charge anybody. I would train at a Fortune 500 company and not charge. It's a labor of love."
And Netter loves his job, he added. "All I have to do is wake up each day and help people."
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