Local officials say threats of terrorism striking locally are exaggerated. But they're ready anyway.
Thursday, October 18, 2001
J&S Surplus in Moss Landing has been sold out of two items since the days following the Sept. 11 attacks: gas masks and American flags.
Ozzy Cardinale of J&S says the current waiting list for a gas mask is at least two months. But he isn''t panicking, because he says the only thing they''re good for is to help his customers sleep at night. He has little faith in the masks'' ability to ward off such weapons as anthrax.
"Peace of mind is half the battle," he says. "But the problem is, it''s a false sense of security, since you wouldn''t know you''d been exposed until it was far too late."
Sgt. Fred Ragghianti of the Monterey Police Department agrees that gas masks won''t help.
"Personally, I think it''s great if you have advance knowledge of a problem," he says. "If not, you''d have to wear it 24 hours a day, and be properly trained to wear it correctly."
The necessity of that level of training was evidenced in the 1991 Iraqi SCUD missile attack over Israel, when many Israelis died of suffocation while using their gas masks.
Fear of terrorist attacks has gripped the county as it has the nation. Local public health officials, police forces and hospitals, as well as federal agencies, agree that the threat is remote, and that some hysteria seems to have set in. In the event that an act of violence were to occur, they all say they are prepared to handle it.
Ragghianti expresses confidence in his department''s ability to respond to terrorist activity locally. "I think we are prepared," he says, "depending, of course, on the magnitude."
In response to the FBI''s Oct. 7 and Oct. 11 requests that law enforcement agencies nationwide go to their "highest level of alert," Ragghianti says, Monterey P.D. has amped up its vigilance, even though no such formal level of "alert" exists within the department.
"It''s nonspecific," he says. "It''s about making people who work here more aware."
That sentiment resonated with other local agencies. "There''s no such [formal alert level] here," says Lt. Kelly McMillin of Salinas P.D. "We''re more sensitive, of course."
McMillin says that no extra duty officers have been assigned, but that since Sept. 11, the department is "evaluating patrol procedures." Particular locations citywide are being patrolled more frequently. "Make no mistake about it," he says ominously, "we''re ready."
Nevertheless, Ragghianti thinks residents should do what makes them feel most comfortable.
"If it makes them feel better to buy a gas mask, that''s different," he says. While Ragghianti wants residents to be aware, he is concerned about mass hysteria. "Don''t walk blind, dumb and stupid; keep your wits about you," he says. "Be aware of your surroundings, but not to the point of calling every time you see someone different."
Undersheriff Terry Pfau concurs. "We can handle anything that comes up," he says. "But the problem will begin when we''re overwhelmed by things like countless suspicious envelopes."
Pfau says he doesn''t believe there are any threats locally. "There are very likely credible threats in other California cities," he says, "like San Francisco, San Jose [and] L.A."
Pfau says the sheriff''s department, like other local agencies, doesn''t have an official threat level. "We''ve got a lot of awareness," he says, "and we''re on our highest guard."
The heightened vigilance extends to the sea. Chief Luke Davis of the Coast Guard says that in his 21 years of experience, he can''t remember ever being more heedful of danger.
"We''ve already made stops on suspicious vessels in the region," Davis says. "It was a good call by those on duty."
He says that there are limits to what the small Monterey regiment can do.
"We simply don''t have the personnel to do much more than a couple of extra hours a day," he says. "We''re understaffed for more than that."
Davis says his Coast Guard vessels patrol the vast waters of Monterey County that lie between San Luis Obispo and Santa Cruz counties. "Yeah, it''s a lot of space, and we have to work search and rescue and regular patrol in there, too," he says.
The Coast Guard has cordoned off areas around its Monterey facility and keeps roving patrols on the base. "Public access has been--had to be--severely restricted," Davis says. "Overtime is racking up, but we''re doing what we can."
Commander Mike Kanalakis of the sheriff''s department says that areas with public access that provide public service are being monitored more carefully. But he also complains that dollars have been scarce. "We are deficient in that we need more equipment, more training and more personnel," Kanalakis says.
He says he is "extremely worried" about the staffing problems that have plagued his and other departments and how the lack of manpower may affect their ability to respond.
"We''re 16 sworn deputies down," he says. "And right now there''s a real threat. But we need to delineate between overreaction and safety."
Dr. Orlando Rodriguez of Salinas says his office has seen a surge of patients requesting information about diseases like anthrax.
"I finally got a handout printed up about anthrax to disseminate to patients looking for information," he says.
Rodriguez says he''s also seen an increase in symptoms consistent with depression and anxiety since the Sept. 11 attacks. "People are afraid, and I can understand that."
Monterey County Health Director Len Foster says residents'' fear, while understandable, can itself be dangerous.
"The mild hysteria can overwhelm the department and seriously dilute our resources," he says. "What we lack is sustaining resources. We can handle the occasional report."
That having been said, Foster remains confident that the county can handle whatever comes along.
"The systems are in place, and we have the expertise to do our part," he says. "I think we can strike a balance."
Foster urges residents to "apply common sense now just as you would have prior to Sept. 11."
Nancy Gere of Community Hospital Of Monterey Peninsula is seeing the reactionary response begin to taper off. "We fielded many calls with people wondering about gas masks and anthrax at the beginning, but it''s settling down now," she says.
Gere goes so far as to say that a couple of false alarms throughout the county provided the hospital with "an excellent drill. It''s a good use of time to practice our readiness, so long as we''re not needed elsewhere," she says.
Gere says CHOMP is prepared for a public emergency.
"An overrun can overwhelm any agency," she says. "[But] our disaster plan is in place, and we''re in the process of reevaluating to make it even better."
Gere wants to reassure the public when it comes to their health. "The CDC has a plan in place, sites around the country, warehouses where we can get vaccines and antibiotics within 12 hours." She says CHOMP''s efforts continue and that the staff and local medical care providers will soon undergo training specifically on bioterrorism.
In the county, ultimately, the burden for readiness rests with Harry Robins, manager of the local Office of Emergency Services. Robins says local agency readiness is good, and that the county can trust in the tried-and-true Standardized Emergency Management System, adopted statewide in 1993 after the Oakland fires.
"This thing is what it is, and it works," he says, referring to the emergency plan. He refers to the CTB McGraw-Hill incident of last week, when fears of anthrax caused the facility to be evacuated, as a testament to the system''s readiness: "It was a very effective response," he says.
Robins does express concern about what he calls "hype and hysteria," and decries "self-proclaimed experts running around out there saying things they shouldn''t be saying, things I''d never say."
"We have word from the State that no specific credible threat exists in California," he says. "Period. End of story."
Should the Office of Emergency Services need additional support personnel, they have at their disposal places like the 149th division of the National Guard in Salinas.
Col. Terry Knight says he likes to refer to the Guard as "California''s 9-1-1." He has no doubts about the readi- ness of his personnel.
"We train for this, and we''re ready to help with the OES plan once the governor calls us to action," he says.
Escalating a step further up the line of defense for Monterey County, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is ready to respond once a presidential declaration is issued.
Jim Scaebel of FEMA says, "The cities and the county are the first responders. And when California doesn''t have the resources, we''re next."
Speaking to FEMA''s preparedness, Scaebel says, "We''re not just well-prepared, we''re exceptionally well-prepared. As a matter of fact, we pay people to be thinkers to foresee these kinds of things."
Scaebel says the CDC has assured him that vaccinations for diseases like smallpox, as well as antibiotics to treat anthrax, are ready and available upon FEMA''s orders. "If I need 700 doses of Cipro by 7pm, it''ll be there," he says.
Scaebel is unwavering in his confidence.
"Since 1979, and by law, I have 28 federal agencies at my disposal ready to respond. I can provide anything from water to doctors at a moment''s notice. And I''m ready for it."