Living With Terrorism: A How-to Guide

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ON ALERT: Hardware stores are selling more plastic sheeting and duct tape

These are unsettling times in the United States. The country been on orange alert since Friday, a new bin Laden audiotape is making the rounds and CIA director George Tenet is on Capitol Hill warning us that an al-Qaeda attack could come as early as this week. And to top it all off, the Homeland Security Department website is asking, "Are You Ready?" Ready? We're so ready it hurts. But what should we be ready for, exactly?

For starters, according to the Homeland Security folks, there's the threat of nuclear, biological and chemical attacks, not to mention the exciting possibility of armed aggression by "hostile governments or extremist groups."

All of which is enough to make most of us wonder why we bothered getting out of bed this morning. But rise and shine we must, as the government likes to remind us, to go about our "everyday lives," lest our economy shut down altogether and the terrorists chalk up a victory against us. As we prepare to face the foreseeable future under the shadow of a terrorist threat, what, if anything, can we do to protect ourselves?

Here's what Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge advises: Keep a three-day supply of water and canned food on hand, and make sure you have ample duct tape and plastic sheets to cover windows in the case of a biological or chemical weapons attack. You should also have a flashlight, as well as "sanitizing" supplies like bleach, water and soap.

We seem to be gearing up; anecdotal evidence suggests many hardware stores across New York City have sold out of duct tape, and Home Depot corporate spokesman Jerry Shields reports sales of both duct tape and plastic sheeting are up, particularly in the New York - Washington D.C. corridor. Haven't got yours yet? Don't worry, says Shields. "We're restocking the items and expect no problem filling the increased demand."

Once you've got your duct tape and plastic sheeting, Homeland Security suggests choosing a room in your home that is internal (not facing the street or yard) and large enough to accommodate your family in the case of attack. According to the HSD website, "ten square feet of floor space per person will provide sufficient air to prevent carbon dioxide build-up for up to five hours."

You've got your room picked out — now what? Pre-measuring and cutting the plastic to fit each opening (i.e. windows and vents) can save a lot of time later. Having this plastic ready to go may mean the difference between having a nervous breakdown and having a nervous breakdown while affixing large sheets of vinyl to your windows.

Other than battening down the (plastic) hatches, there isn't much else we can do. HSD guidelines suggest everyone "be aware of your surroundings," because, paradoxically, "The very nature of terrorism suggests there may be little or no warning." What should we look for, then? It's not clear. But the underlying message is well taken: if you're in a public venue, take a minute or two to figure out where the exit signs are. Of course, in the case of an actual emergency, they'll be easily identified by the swarms of panicked people running through them.

In the meantime, it can't hurt to take a look at the HSD/FEMA suggestions. Psychologists theorize people feel better when they know what to expect. And since that's pretty much out of the question these days, at least we can prepare for the unexpected.