Nation copes with jitters

Veteran disaster responders offer perspectives on the subject of terrorism preparation.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | BALTIMORE | February 14, 2003

"Do I have duct tape and plastic? No, I don't."

—Joann Hale

A Code Orange terror alert and news broadcasts playing and replaying the purported voice of Osama bin Laden have had many Americans on edge lately, and some have been actively seeking methods of protecting themselves from a possible terrorist attack.

There are the official recommendations from the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The CIA also has a detailed handbook of suggestions for terrorism preparation and decontamination.

Many of these suggestions aren't particularly novel. In fact, they are basically the same guidelines to be followed in order to prepare for any emergency—storing nonperishable food, bottled water, first-aid kits, flashlights, plenty of batteries and a gasoline-powered generator.

But one recommendation from FEMA has gotten a lot of press: using duct tape and plastic sheeting to create so-called "safe rooms," in order to protect against possible chemical and biological weapons attacks.

There have been reports recently of the supplies of hardware stores across the country doing brisk business in these terrorism preparation materials.

Experts weigh in on duct tape, decontamination

Two veteran disaster responders who work for Church World Service offer two perspectives on the subject of terrorism preparation.

Terry Wesbrock, a former cop from West Virginia who now serves as an expert in security matters for Church World Service (CWS), believes the new government suggestions are a good idea.

Wesbrock specializes in the really nasty sort of technological disasters ? the kind that involve chemical, biological or nuclear materials. And he thinks that the official FEMA guidelines can be very helpful preparation tips for citizens.

"They're quite right on," he said. "They're about the best you can do."

There are measures that can be taken above and beyond FEMA guidelines, Wesbrock said, but he does not recommend these measures in all circumstances, nor does he "recommend running out and buying a tyvex suit."

He does think, however, that some Americans might want to consider purchasing an "escape hood," a rudimentary gas mask that gives temporary protection against chemicals and airborne germs. These hoods are designed to allow the wearer to escape a contaminated area without becoming incapacitated.

Wesbrook doesn't plan on buying one himself-he's from rural West Virginia. But, he said, if he were a New Yorker, or a Washingtonian, he might think about purchasing one.

He also recommends citizens be aware of how to decontaminate themselves in case they are ever exposed to chemical, biological or radiological agents. He details this procedure in a CWS document he published on Feb. 6.

The basic procedure: strip off your clothes, dump them in a plastic bag and don't touch them again. Then wash your body with clean, uncontaminated water. The most important organ to clean: the eyes.

"To flush the eyes with uncontaminated water from a container of uncontaminated water, tilt the head to one side, open the eyelids as wide as possible, and pour water slowly into the eye so that it will run off the side of the face to avoid spreading the contamination," he wrote. "This irrigation can be carried out despite the presence of toxic vapors in the atmosphere. Hold your breath and keep your mouth closed during this procedure to prevent contamination and absorption through the mucous membranes."

However, Wesbrock also writes in the same document that these procedures may only be "marginally effective," and that "decontamination after absorption occurs may serve little or no purpose."

Joann Hale, a disaster response and recovery liaison for CWS, has a more skeptical view of what the average citizen can do to prepare for a possible terrorist attack, particularly the construction of a "safe room."

The "safe room," she said, led her to recall "when I was a child doing duck-and-cover under a desk." And it made her think of grandfather's Cold War-era basement bomb shelter.

"It's like deja vu," she said. "I can't figure it out. I really don't have an answer. If that makes people feel secure, then they should do it."

On the other hand, she said the construction of a "safe room" would provide "a false sense of security for me, and for my family," she said. "But if that makes your family feel secure, then do it."

Hale advocates the more general disaster preparation approach-stockpiling supplies which most households already have (nonperishable food, bottled water, flashlights and batteries).

"Do I have duct tape and plastic?" said Hale. "No, I don't."

But for those shoppers responsible for cleaning out the stocks of local hardware stores, Hale said they might find out that their fears of terror attacks could turn out to be "sort of like the hurricane that didn't arrive."

On the other hand, there are some stridently alarmist voices, particularly in cyberspace.

"The next major terrorist attacks may well hit our country in the next few weeks. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Americans are woefully unprepared to survive such attacks. Worse, the U.S. government has told us absolutely nothing about what we can do to protect ourselves. (And make no mistake about it, there's plenty we can do.) We don't have to be sitting ducks!"

This is according to the Web site of Jarret B. Wollstein, author of Surviving Terrorism, a 312-page book that sells for $97.

Wollstein cites no specific qualifications for expatiating on this topic. The Web site gives no information on the author, other than his address (Brentwood, Tenn.) and the name of the Institute for Individual Initiative (of which no description is offered).

Surviving Terrorism provides suggestions on a wide variety of topics, such as how to build "a $20 emergency toilet," prepare "nutritious meals for a mere five cents each," and accumulate a vital "70-volume survival library for less than $30." On page 222, Wollstein explains "how to protect your family if lawless cops invade your home." On pages 125-30, the reader learns "how to demolish a knife-wielding terrorist"—esoteric wisdom imparted by "a 7th Degree Black Belt."

Wollstein's guide isn't the only one of its kind—although, judging from its prominence on a Google search, it is one of the more popular.

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More links on Terrorism


Related Links:

FEMA Guide to Citizen Preparedness

CIA handbook on terrorism and decontamination


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