Post - 9-11, How Safe Is America?

 

More than two years after terrorists wreaked their havoc on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, homeland security remains at the forefront of national concerns.

On the positive side, state, regional and local governments are working closer than ever to coordinate and prepare for the worst. Police, firefighters and health workers are being trained to deal with the next national nightmare. And tens of billions of dollars are flowing from federal coffers to pay for those efforts.

But a recent report from the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations concluded that the United States "remains dangerously ill-prepared to handle a catastrophic attack on American soil."

Analysts at the think tank estimated it would cost $98 billion over five years to give first responders and public health agencies the training and equipment to detect weapons of mass destruction and respond to an attack.

"Fire departments across the country have only enough radios to equip half the firefighters on a shift and breathing apparatuses for only one-third," the council reported. "Only 10 percent of fire departments in the United States have the personnel and equipment to respond to a building collapse."

Money is not always finding its way quickly to intended recipients and the spending is not being directed towards a coordinated national strategy to prevent or respond to terrorism.

An investigative report by The Washington Post found that much of the $324 million given to jurisdictions in the national capital region remained unused or misspent on "pet projects" or contracts for political allies.

A blue-ribbon panel, led by former Virgina Gov. James Gilmore (R), concluded that lacking a "clear articulated vision" from the federal government, each of the states and territories is moving to combat terrorism in its own way.

"We need a little more structured approach from the Department of Homeland Security," said Tim Daniels, Missouri's homeland security adviser. "We've got 50 states and everybody is doing it a little bit differently."

Without uniform standards, state and local officials say, they risk purchasing equipment that is superfluous or does not work well with equipment in surrounding jurisdictions.

Overall, the Department of Homeland Security will spend more than $29 billion in fiscal year 2004, including $4.2 billion for the Office of Domestic Preparedness.

Training and equipment is "absolutely" getting to the first responders, said Chris McIlroy, a homeland security expert at the National Governors Association. "But it takes time," he added. "It's a cautious process."

"We just got started 10 years too late," said Eric Bernard, president of the volunteer fire department in Rockville, Md., a Washington, D.C. suburb. Part of the problem, Bernard said, is that there is no consensus on what equipment and training firefighters and other first responders need, because it's hard to prepare for the unimaginable.

John Hager, Virginia's director of homeland security, said anti-terrorism funding pays for a broad spectrum of activities from agribusiness security to safeguarding water reservoirs and yields few instant results. "It's a giant vat of money, with many spigots coming out of it," he said.

Another big problem, Daniels said, is that more information about suspects or threats should be shared with local and state police. "Police feel that they're not being employed in the war on terrorism," he said. "And the federal government can't do it all."

Earlier this year, 10 Northeast states asked Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to establish information centers staffed by personnel with top security clearances who would maintain direct, secure lines of communication between state and local police and the federal government. Ridge a former governor of Pennsylvania -- asked governors to designate five state officials who would get regular access to top-secret information about planned or suspected attacks.

Preparation for a biological attack the release and spread of a live viral or bacterial agent through the air, water, food or human contact is also a remaining challenge.

States are not much better prepared now to deal with public health emergencies than they were before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to a report from the Trust for America's Health, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization funded in part by The Pew Charitable Trusts, which also funds Stateline.org.

The report examined each state's bioterror preparedness in three areas: funding (including state budgets for public health programs); public health infrastructures (such as laboratories and communications capabilities); and indicators that show how new bioterror funding has impacted public health systems.

California, Florida, Maryland and Tennessee achieved the highest rankings by meeting seven of 10 preparedness indicators. Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, New Mexico and Wisconsin scored the worst, meeting just two of the indicators. Seventy percent of states met between three and five indicators, the report said.

"People are starting to wake up to the fact that this is our greatest vulnerability," Daniels said. "We haven't done as much as we need to do."

Staff Writer Erin Madigan contributed to this report

Editor's Note: The full homeland security story will appear in our State of the States 2004 publication, online and in print in January.  

 
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