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The Byrne Report

Bombs Away

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MARIN, NAPA AND SONOMA counties are much more likely to be devastated by earthquakes and forest fires than by dirty bombs, anthrax or chlorine gas. But if the United States attacks Iran, Syria or Lebanon, an Islamic political party, Hezbollah, is bound to retaliate inside America. Or so say the people who handicap terrorism at Risk Management Solutions of Newark, Calif.

The Hezbollah's style is not to attack civilians or use weapons of mass destruction, known as WMDs. The Beirut-based party would probably target military installations (like those radio towers that look like giant golf balls sitting on top of Mt. Tamalpais). Messy, perhaps, but not a big enough deal that you should put your Mill Valley home on the market.

Chris Godley, emergency services manager for Marin County, says there do not appear to be credible terrorist cells operating in California. "The statistical threat of terrorism to me and my family is relatively low compared to driving down Highway 101," he says. "But due to the concentration on terrorism, we lose sight of other risks, like fires, earthquakes and flu pandemics."

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security does not agree with Godley. Since Sept. 11, 2001, it has awarded $4.5 million in homeland-security grants to Marin, dwarfing the county's regular emergency services budget. The Feds also ordered that the windfall be used almost exclusively to plan for WMD attacks. Like his counterparts in other North Bay counties, Godley was instructed to buy chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear (CBRN) equipment--hazardous materials suits, decontamination gear and pharmaceutical stockpiles--from lists of vendors that had been preapproved by the department.

Such equipment is notoriously hard to use. "You have a golden hour to rescue, treat, decontaminate and ship people to a hospital," Godley says. "It takes 30 minutes to an hour to suit up in the elaborate gear, and by the time you suit up, it is too late." Furthermore, once what is called a Level-A HazMat suit is donned, a healthy person can only work inside it for about 20 minutes before it becomes unbearably hot and must be discarded into a toxic waste container.

"Training on this equipment comes at the expense of other programs, such as teaching earthquake preparedness," Godley says. But there is an upside: training for chemical attack helps responders deal with more certain events, like tanker truck accidents.

Santa Rosa Fire Department Division Chief Charles Hanley coordinates weapons of mass destruction grants for the city. He is not an expert on terrorism or WMD, but somebody has to do the job. In the last three years, Sonoma County has used $4 million in homeland-security money to purchase emergency-response vehicles, HazMat suits and specialty items, such as automatic nerve-gas-antidote injectors.

During the same time period, Napa county got $1.25 million to prepare for a Bushcalypse. Kathy Brady, emergency services coordinator for Calistoga, says the county spent $611,000 on HazMat suits, biological-threat-detection equipment, a new emergency dispatch system and in setting up a Citizen Corps program, which encourages people to inform on "suspicious" neighbors. This year, Brady is buying portable morgues. "The Napa Wine Train carries dignitaries," she says. "A biological event is a possibility."

Napa city police commander Andy Lewis is not too worried about his city becoming a terror target. He is concerned about not losing sight of the ABCs of emergency response, such as handling earthquake refugees from San Francisco. But planning and equipping for disaster survival and recovery are not big on Homeland Security's wish list.

"There is a huge industry for weapons of mass destruction equipment," Lewis says. "We've got air respirators and air purifiers and portable decontamination units and morgues. We outfitted the whole SWAT team with HazMat suits."

This year, the Department of Homeland Security flooded the nation's counties with $2.5 billion for CBRN equipment and WMD training, with an emphasis on funding intelligence operations for local police. Reform is unlikely. President Bush recently fired the department's Inspector General, Clark Kent Ervin, after he reported that Homeland Security is incapable of accurately accounting for $10 billion in local grants.

Beset by confusing instructions and too much manna from Washington, North Bay emergency officials are attempting to do their jobs. In between CBRN seminars and responding to color-code changes, they try to prepare for such more pressing scenarios as earthquakes, forest fires and gas main explosions. There is little time to be worried about bombs set off by Hezbollah, or Kahane Chai, a Jewish extremist organization dedicated to restoring the Biblical state of Israel and identified by Risk Management Solutions as a domestic terrorist threat.

Their valiant efforts may be in vain as long as the clear and present danger to our security remains our central government, which claims to be protecting us, while actually doing the opposite.

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From the December 22-28, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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