Governors Prepare for Terror

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As Americans across the nation watched the world change September 11th, one thought had to be going through every governorís head: "What if that were my state?" Ever since, states have been working to be ready in case theyíre next. While the feds are taking the lead in the fight to punish those responsible, state and local governments are Americaís first line of defense. Theyíre also the first line of response, just as New York Cityís firefighters and cops were the first to rush to the Twin Towers.

So most governors are assembling teams to plan every conceivable response to possible future attacks. Itís a mammoth task, involving the coordination of police, firefighters, doctors, nurse, hospital administrators and national guard units. And what if the attack is chemical or biological? As Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma told CNN recently, "We governors, we know how to address earthquakes and floods and tornadoes, but we know nothing about sarin gas." They had better learn.

[an error occurred while processing this directive]Fighting terrorism hasnít exactly been a top state priority. The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing proved domestic terrorism was a real threat, and the federal government pushed states to develop contingency plans. Some cities ran drills with simulated chemical or biological attacks. But in most state capitols, terrorism was still less of a concern than balancing the budget or improving schools. New York was fortunate in many ways; Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had worked to prepare the city for terrorist attacks ever since the World Trade Center bombing in 1993. (Of course, it was probably a mistake to build his emergency command bunker in the Trade Center.) In 1999, the Justice Department set aside $150 million for states to use for purchasing emergency equipment. Only Utah, which will host the Olympics next year, applied for any money before Sept. 11th.

The attacks suddenly made contingency plans an urgent need. Legislators in Florida flooded Jeb Bushís office with suggestions like putting armed marshals on all cruise ships. Maine starting ordering chemical suits for emergency teams (at $3,000 a suit). Missouri Governor Bob Holden appointed a cabinet adviser to plan homeland defense. Nine other governors either followed suit or organized committees to do the same.

Much of statesí attention seems to be focused on one of the publicís biggest fears — biological or chemical attack. While experts think a smallpox or sarin gas attack is less likely than another conventional assault, the anthrax cases in West Palm Beach have made people very nervous. And health officials admit they are not ready. Hospital data isnít closely monitored for early signs of an outbreak. Since smallpox and anthrax havenít been seen in the U.S. for over two decades, most doctors and nurses have no idea what to look for. Most hospitals have only one small shower to handle patients exposed to hazardous chemicals.

As for more likely conventional attacks, local officials are moving to protect potential targets. Maryland Health Secretary Georges Benjamin suggests they also note what kind of chemical or biological labs and companies are in their communities. The National Governors Association is compiling a database of emergency resources in every state that could be called on during an attack. Many rescue workers from New Jersey and upstate New York rushed into the City on the 11th. If terrorists struck again, officials need to know what resources are nearby, including Level 3 labs, the few facilities that can analyze evidence for biological hazards like anthrax. If all this sounds expensive, thatís because it is. Iowaís emergency management analysts estimate theyíll need over $11.4 million this year to better prepare the state. More populous states will need far more. And all will want the feds to foot the bill — after all, itís a matter of a national security. Most of the states were already facing budget shortfalls when the economy began to slow before the attacks. Things have only gotten worse since. In the end, the federal government will have to chip in a large part of the money. Itís the only way to guarantee states make adequate preparations. Congress could start by allocating that $150 million only Utah wanted a piece of.

But the feds also need to help states share info. New Homeland Security czar Tom Ridge is going to have to work with state agencies to make sure there is a unified defense — and that states and the feds are discussing future threats. "The most important thing is intelligence sharing between law enforcement agencies," says Ann Beauchesne, an analyst with the National Governors Association. The FBI — and even intelligence agencies — need to work with local cops to make sure everyone is prepared for the next strike.