One Year Later, States Better Prepared For Terror

By: - September 10, 2002 12:00 am

Are the states better prepared to handle a terrorist attack than they were one year ago when Al Queda hijackers turned four U.S. passenger jets into weapons that killed nearly 3,000 people?

Yes, but.

That’s the answer from the man who managed New York State’s response to the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.

“We’re better prepared now than we were then, because we understand some of the situations better,” state director Ed Jacoby said during a break at a meeting of emergency management officials here last week.

Debate in Congress over the shape of the proposed Department of Homeland Security is keeping new state-level initiatives on hold at a time when the states desperately need more federal aid to maintain existing projects, several officials said.

Florida, for example, needs more money to complete its anti-terror strategy. Pennsylvania communities need help updating their disaster plans. Virginia lacks necessary state matching funds for a statewide emergency radio network. Indiana wants to finish outfitting and training thousands of state and local emergency response squads with protective suits. New York seeks qualified recruits for a robust citizen volunteer corps.

“I like to tell people I’m now working half-days and on call the other 12 hours of the day,” said Acting Director Don Keldsen of the Maryland Emergency Management Agency.

Keldsen tells a story repeated by colleagues in California, Georgia, Iowa, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Officials have little or no new state money or personnel to prepare for another massive terrorist attack.

“This, to us is very personal,” said Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency Director David Smith. “We’re angry. I walk down the halls after hours here and there are a lot of lights on.”

The most urgent need, reports on the response at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon show, may be for workable radio communications among emergency responders from different jurisdictions.

“We don’t have money to do everything we need to do right way, but certainly communications (are a priority). They ought to work hard to get that implemented within the next year,” Massachusetts state Senator Richard Moore, a former Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) official who leads a national legislative panel on anti-terror issues, said.

“If we don’t get this done soon, the next time the shoe falls and we’re not ready, then shame on us,” said Richard Sheirer, who retired earlier this year as director of New York City’s emergency management office.

Predicting the Future

The job of the emergency management director is to imagine the unimaginable and then, when it actually happens, to manage the seemingly unmanageable.

In more concrete terms, it is to coordinate the activities of police, fire, medical, hazardous materials and other public safety teams that arrive on the scene of a disaster: Wildfires, floods, earthquakes, ice storms, chemical spills, infectious disease outbreaks, radioactive leaks, plane crashes, and intentional acts of terrorism.

The unofficial mantra of these men and women is that “all disasters are local.” But larger catastrophes often require help from neighboring jurisdictions. The states and the federal government, which provide funding, training and guidelines to localities in quieter moments, play backup roles during a crisis.

“Gov. Pataki was criticized because he was not the leader supposedly (on Sept. 11). That’s true. The mayor was the leader. New York State is a home rule state. All emergencies begin and end at the local level. We were there to support New York City during that time,” Jacoby said.

Beyond foresight, the job requires money. Like their counterparts in public health, emergency management officials complain their efforts have long suffered from inadequate finances. Although they’ve not yet received anything like the .1 billion shot in the arm the states received for health system improvements this year, some state law enforcement and emergency agencies saw their terror-related funding more than triple from 2001.

Homeland security analysts give most states high marks for their post-Sept. 11readiness efforts.

“When you look at states, you’ve certainly seen a lot of progress . . . on dealing with possible attacks and consequence management,” said Brookings Institution scholar Michael O’Hanlon.

“I have no problem being personally held accountable for our readiness in the event of an attack in the state of Georgia,” state director Gary McConnell said.

McConnell, who began thinking seriously about terrorism while preparing security for the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, said the time has come to move beyond the question of whether or not the nation is prepared to handle another attack.

California’s Dallas Jones agreed. “We’re somewhere in between. Regardless, we’re going to respond,” he said.

Jones takes a holistic view of disasters, the “all-hazards” approach officially espoused by the states and FEMA, which sees little distinction between the results of the destructive acts of man and nature apart from the conscious effort to treat the former as crime scenes.

“Our job is primarily one of coordination in an emergency regardless of the mechanism that creates it. If you look at the World Trade Center occurrence, it could have been a major earthquake. The same thing with the catastrophic release of hazardous materials like Bhopal, India . . . (or the) Texas City ammonium nitrate ship that wiped out half the community,” he said.

The Senate Appropriations Committee views the matter differently. “Grouping preparedness and response, especially as it concerns weapons of mass destruction, under an emergency management “all-hazards” approach puts our first responders, as well as the general public, at risk” because it obscures the needs of law enforcement, a recent committee report said.

The committee voted to send more of President Bush’s .5 billion request for first responders through the Justice Department than through FEMA. The impact upon state and local preparedness efforts is likely to remain unclear for some time.

But states take pride in how much they were able to do on Sept. 11.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever reach total perfection, because a plan is simply that. It has to mold to the changing times,” said Jacoby.

Pre-9/11 Preparations

Terrorism was not a new issue in September 2001, when the state-based National Emergency Management Association (NEMA) convened at Montana’s remote Big Sky resort.

The bombings of the World Trade Center in 1993 and in Oklahoma City in 1995 alerted governments to the danger of high-level terrorist activity on American soil. Y2K plans spurred the construction or improvement of emergency operations centers in several states.

Georgia first offered anti-terror training exercises in 1998. Florida officials began strategy discussions the following year. But few states could justify giving terrorist activity that might never come more attention than accidents and natural disasters that happen all the time.

NEMA’s terrorism committee, already three years old, convened on the afternoon of Saturday, Sept. 8, fewer than 72 hours before the hijacked commercial jet planes hit New York, the Pentagon and rural Pennsylvania. Members discussed anti-terror planning courses and the status of federal aid and cooperation efforts.

On Tuesday morning, Jacoby was getting ready for breakfast and a meeting with Federal Emergency Management Agency director Joe Allbaugh when he received word that a small plane had crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

NEMA conference planner Karen Cobuluis remembers what seemed like dozens of pagers going off all at once. By the time officials gathered around the television in the resort’s bar, the second plane had hit and the nature of the disaster was clear.

“A year ago, we were going to sit down and have a nice conversation,” Allbaugh recalled at this year’s meeting.

“But then I left. I had a job to do. So did many of you,” he said.

Action on the ground in New York suffered nothing for Jacoby’s temporary absence from the state. He immediately phoned his office and Gov. George Pataki. Pataki declared a state of emergency and mobilized the National Guard. The state’s 24-hour operations center and mutual aid plan were activated.

In the city, Richard Sheirer was placing his first telephone call of the day to Jacoby’s office to request air support from the New York Air National Guard, fearing the possibility of further attacks.

“In one telephone call, I knew who was on the other end,” Jacoby recalled. “I said, ‘Richard, what do you need? You know what we’ve got.’ It was a partnership from the very beginning – a strong partnership,” he said of the communication between city and state, something the two men had cultivated since Sheirer took the city job in 2000.

Within hours, Jacoby was in nearby Bozeman boarding one of the North Dakota Air Guard’s F-16 fighter jets for home. Over the next few days, his job would be to marshal the efforts of 22 state agencies and nearly 17,000 personnel, including 5,200 Guardsmen and 500 state police officers. As Sheirer and city police and fire officials identified their needs, they called upon the state’s emergency center.

Jacoby set up five warehouses with more than 700,000 square feet of space outside the city to help organize the deluge of volunteers and donations. As radio communications failed for city firemen and police responding to the scene at Ground Zero that day, “our first person in there had a satellite telephone. We were able to communicate from the city back to our office. . . So we were able to funnel resources in there right away,” he said.

After the city lost its emergency operations center in the collapse of Building 7 later that afternoon, the state’s role became even more critical in helping site and set up the new one that eventually took shape on Pier 92.

“The state government under Gov. Pataki and the city government under Mayor Giuliani really acted as one government,” said Sheirer.

“If we hadn’t come together as a team, it would have been a different story. . . It could have been so much worse,” Jacoby said.

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