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Photograph by Lynn Johnson
Emergency workers prepare for terrorist attacks at a training site in Texas.

When Terrorists Strike: Preparing for Disaster

By Cassandra Franklin-Barbajosa

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, followed shortly by a scare of deadly anthrax, placed security high on the American agenda. To better respond to threats, President George W. Bush created the Department of Homeland Security. One of its first actions was to introduce a color-coded system of public alerts.

State and local jurisdictions are altering their response procedures—which traditionally address accidents and natural catastrophes—to handle the death, destruction, injuries, and panic resulting from various forms of attack.

Looking beyond U.S. borders, the government is considering going to war against Iraq for possession of biological weapons and suspected possession of chemical and nuclear weapons. In fact, weapons of mass destruction and bioterrorism have been the subject of so much news that many Americans are left wondering how to best protect themselves in the event of future attacks.

No one can easily anticipate whether a terrorist attack will come in the form of nuclear or dirty bombs, chemical weapons, or biological hazards. With that in mind, the following tips—by no means exhaustive—offer guidance on getting prepared and what steps to take when disaster strikes.

Preparing for the Unexpected

  • Develop an emergency communications plan
    • Designate an out-of-town contact—someone at a distance from the disaster area—for all family members to check in with by telephone or e-mail. Make sure that person agrees in advance to be the contact and that all family members have the point-person's e-mail address as well as home, office, pager, and cell phone numbers. Provide the same information for your workplace, your children's schools and day-care center, and care facilities for adult dependents. 

    • Pick a meeting place
    • Before a crisis occurs, select a place for everyone to meet in case your home is damaged or you are required to evacuate the affected area. Make sure everyone has the address and knows at least general directions such as the closest major crossroads. Familiarize yourself with alternative routes out of your area. Keep your car in working order and the gas tank full. Consider arranging to stay with a relative or friend. And don't forget to include pets in your plans; shelters don't permit them, and some hotels will not allow them.

    • Put together an emergency kit
      • If asked to evacuate, you'll need a number of items to ensure your family's comfort. Pack an easily transported container, such as a duffel bag, with:

        • cash
        • identification
        • necessary personal items (prescription medications, contact lens solution)
        • copies of important documents (insurance policies, birth and marriage certificates, licenses, passports, powers of attorney, wills)
        • first-aid kit
        • flashlight
        • battery powered radio or TV
        • extra batteries
        • non-perishable food that doesn't require cooking
        • bottled water
        • change of clothes for each person
        • comfortable walking shoes
        • car and house keys
        • current road atlas
        • sleeping bags or bedrolls
        • tools
        • pet-care items (food, ID tags, litter or newspaper, veterinary records)
      • Prepare a safe room
        • If instructed to stay at home, designate an interior room with a toilet, water, and phone, if possible, and few or no windows. Chemical agents drift downward, so higher rooms are better.

          • Keep duct tape and plastic sheeting on hand to seal windows, doors, and vents.
          • Tailor your disaster kit for at-home use and with enough supplies to allow you to stay in the room for at least three days.
          • Consider purchasing inexpensive breathing filters, rated N95 or better, for each family member. Although the government has not recommended the use of masks for the general public, research shows that they reduce exposure to some airborne agents such as anthrax.

         When Disaster Strikes

        • Put your plan into action based on what has occurred, and tune your radio to an emergency alert system for instructions from local officials.
        • If you are near an attack site, check yourself for injuries, apply first aid, and get help for anyone who is seriously injured.
        • If the disaster takes place near your home while you are there, check for structural damage, fires, or other potential problems by using a flashlight—hazardous chemicals, fumes, or gas may be in the air, so do not turn on electrical switches or light candles or matches. Keep in mind that if you turn off your gas, you'll need a professional to reinstate service.
        • If you suspect an attack of chemical or biological agents, lock all doors and windows, turn off heating or air conditioning, close all vents and fireplace dampers. Use duct tape and plastic to seal windows, doors, vents, electrical outlets, and openings around pipes and fixtures. Rather than a wet towel, use duct tape under the doors.
        • If ordered to evacuate, use the routes suggested by local authorities. Others may be impassable, jammed with slow-moving traffic, or too close to danger. Go upwind or uphill if possible.
        • Find shelter quickly, moving uphill and upwind, during a chemical attack. Then seek medical help as soon as emergency workers arrive.
        • Act fast is you think you have been exposed to liquid or aerosol chemicals on your skin or clothes. Begin helping yourself before help arrives.
        • Once you leave the immediate area, remove wigs, glasses, and all clothing and jewelry.
        • Wash your hands before washing the rest of your body. Use soap if it is available, but don't wait for it. Avoid hard scrubbing and rubbing dry; it can work the contaminant into your skin.

          Common-sense Office Tips

          • If your office provides space, keep a bicycle and protective gear on hand to allow ease of movement through evacuating traffic.
          • Keep a backpack filled with emergency supplies in your office.
          • Tuck a pair of athletic shoes in a drawer in case you have to walk long distances.

            For more information on disaster preparedness, contact your local emergency management agency and browse these helpful websites:

            American Red Cross
            An explanation of the Homeland Security Advisory System is provided here.

            Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
            Get the facts on anthrax, smallpox, radiological emergencies, biological agents, and chemical agents.

            Federal Emergency Management Agency
            This is where you'll find a Terrorism Fact Sheet as well as an Emergency Preparedness Checklist.

            Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies
            This comprehensive site provides access to government and medical journal reports on biological weapons as well as the Dark Winter Bioterrorism Exercise, a mock scenario carried out in Washington, D.C., in June 2001.

            New York Red Cross
            This overview, also available in Spanish, provides solid information for responding to a terrorist attack.

            U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission
            Navigate through this site to learn more about dirty bombs, radiation, and emergency response.

            Washington Post
            Read online interviews with experts on preparedness at these Washington Post sites:

            Preparedness: Dirty Bombs and Radiological Threats

            Preparedness: Local Readiness

            Preparedness: Homeland Security

            Preparedness: D.C. Emergency Management Agency

            Preparedness: Hospital Readiness

            Preparedness: Public Health

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