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If you think S.F. is ready for a terrorist attack – even two years-plus after 9/11 – think again

Wednesday, Jan 21 2004

Page 5 of 6

When all is said and done, though, it takes a lot of expertise and money to build, transport, and set off CBRN weapons capable of killing thousands of people. On the other hand, conventional explosives can cause plenty of damage. Some police, fire, and emergency response officials say they are more worried about car and truck bombs than weapons of mass destruction.

"The general feeling," says Police Chief Fagan, "is that if terrorists had a nuclear bomb or a dirty bomb, it would have been used by now. If the public knew what was being done to disrupt cells, they would sleep better at night."

Civil grand juror Singer disagrees. "I learned enough to be scared," she says. "An airplane full of bad stuff downtown would be really bad."

Singer says San Francisco is reasonably ready for "normal" disasters such as minor explosions. But she adds that a myth of preparedness has arisen here since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

Singer and Linehan both point out that the city's response to Loma Prieta was rife with problems, including poor radio communications, insufficient water for firefighting, failure to find enough food and shelter for displaced people, and limited search-and-rescue ability. Dozens of people died horrible, lingering deaths in the rubble of the Cypress Freeway, for instance, because nobody in the Bay Area had the expertise and equipment to dig them out.

Nearly 15 years later, San Francisco remains incapable of launching heavy search-and-rescue missions on collapsed buildings, bridges, or freeway overpasses.

Phil Chin, head of disaster planning for the Department of Public Works, is in charge of getting ready for heavy search-and-rescue operations, demolishing buildings contaminated by a weapon of mass destruction, clearing streets so emergency vehicles can move about, barricading radioactive or contaminated sections of the city, and removing hazardous materials and infectious debris. He is blunt about the city's lack of readiness in these areas.

"We are not currently prepared to operate in [a CBRN] environment," he says. "We need to teach folks to use protective equipment [such as Level A suits]. It is expensive to train people and equip them and recertify them annually. Ten years ago, we had some capability, but it was not deemed cost effective and was cut out in a budget crunch."

Chin hopes to receive federal grants to buy two Unimog trucks, the Swiss army knives of emergency response. The $400,000, four-wheel-drive vehicles can function like a bulldozer, a crane, or a debris scooper. Still, Chin says, the Unimogs "are not as good as any single piece of equipment, like a bulldozer, [cutting] torch, crane, lift beams. We can economize by spending on two of those [vehicles], instead of more equipment."

How would city officials cope with all the contaminated corpses that could result from a CBRN attack? Chin says they hope not to have to bulldoze bodies into pits, as was done with many victims of the recent Iranian earthquake. "We may not approach it that way," he says. "As much as possible, those in charge want to salvage remains in a certain manner. It's a cultural thing."

Since the San Francisco Medical Examiner's Office isn't capable of handling more than a few dozen radioactive or otherwise tainted corpses, the city probably would call on the federal Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, which dispatches morticians to decontaminate, bag, and bury casualties of weapons of mass destruction.

DMORT workers would bring in their own Level A suits, bleach, refrigerated storage units, embalming materials, and 55-gallon drums for storing dead pets. But a 35-member DMORT team can only bag about eight human corpses an hour, according to the Army's Guidelines for Mass Fatality Management During Terrorist Incidents Involving Chemical Agents. Although the Army is expanding the number of teams, it has determined that the United States is "unprepared to manage catastrophic numbers of fatalities at the local and regional level."

This means that after a particularly horrible disaster, local officials might have to use Unimogs to plow contaminated and rotting bodies into mass graves, perhaps in Golden Gate Park.

Not everybody perishes in a disaster, of course, and displaced survivors must be looked after. City officials expect up to 40,000 people to be left homeless by a major earthquake. But a radioactive plume blowing across a city of about 776,000 could drive many times that number of people out of their homes and apartments.

The grand jury determined that the city is capable of sheltering and feeding only about 1,500 displaced people -- and then only for 48 hours. According to the city's current emergency plan, cots and blankets will arrive through the good graces of the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. Displaced people will be housed in large halls and public schools. And food will be commandeered from restaurants and supermarkets, although supplies will be limited.

In his reply to the grand jury, Canton explained, "In emergency response, feeding is not considered an immediate need. ... [P]eople can survive without food for a considerable period of time."

In the mid-1990s, the city invested $166 million in a state-of-the-art emergency communications center on Turk Street. Officials concede, however, that the facility would have serious problems in an emergency. For example, the central 911 radio system cannot talk directly to Muni drivers, BART police, or airport officials. Nor can it penetrate numerous "dead zones" between hills or the interiors of commercial high-rises and some public buildings, such as the Hall of Justice. It also can't reach underground basements and garages, which in a disaster might contain many injured and trapped people requiring rescue.

Canton says these electronic gaps can be filled by issuing portable radios to all first responders, but admits he had only "a small cache" of them.

Linehan says the emergency communication network is as likely to fail here as it did in New York after the World Trade Center attack. A helicopter full of communications gear might help first responders talk to one another and see the big picture, he says.

About The Author

Peter Byrne


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