When a farmer from North Carolina drove his tractor into a pond near the National Mall last week and threatened to set off a bomb, buildings in the area were evacuated and commuter traffic around downtown Washington was snarled for two days.
Area residents, already nervous about the threat of terrorist activity in the wake of war in Iraq, wondered what they would do in the event of a real evacuation and what their local governments were doing to prepare for such an event.
Representatives of a Washington-based firm that specializes in emergency planning addressed some of those issues before a somber audience on the eve of the U.S. entry into war with Saddam Hussein.
There were questions about everything from evacuation planning and the effectiveness of gas masks, to dealing with children and what to do with pets. Emergency planner Hrach Gregorian acknowledged that the events of September 11, 2001 profoundly altered the way most Americans' live their lives, but he told the audience it is important to keep the threat of terrorism in its proper perspective.
"If you look at these things statistically, the average person is far less likely to be killed or harmed by a terrorist than certainly by smoking, car accidents and a host of other things we do daily. But it is not out of the question," he said. "Expect the best, but prepare for the worst and that's all we're saying here. But remember if you plan ahead, the likelihood that you'll be overwhelmed by these events is lower than if you sit back and wait for these things to happen to you."
Mr. Gregorian, representing his firm, Hammer and Gregorian, said he believes the government's recommendation last month to buy duct tape and plastic sheeting in the event of a biological attack did more to frighten people than inform.
Instead, in his emergency preparedness program, he stressed such issues as the importance of having a communication plan that is, keeping a list of friends or relatives' phone numbers and other important contacts ready; tips about evacuation numbers to call about evacuation routes and determining when it might be more useful to stay in one place; the kinds of food and supplies to pack for a short term period; and the effectiveness of such "calming skills" as deep breathing and meditation.
Mr. Gregorian's partner, Mitchell Hammer, told the crowd that thinking ahead and being prepared is their best defense. "The 'do-nothing' approach is based oftentimes on a sense of helplessness, maybe a sense of uncertainty," he said. "After all, you can't predict what will happen, you can't know the extent of what will happen, therefore, why do anything? The answer to that is that preparation, mindful action, has a greater probability of being effective should a terrorist attack occur or should an emergency occur, than if you do nothing. Mindful action does not mean hyper-vigilance. Hyper-vigilance is an unrealistically heightened sense of impending doom that results in over-reaction."
American University's Emergency Preparedness Program attracted a crowd of about 200, a diverse mix of students, people from the neighborhood, and emergency professionals who wanted to learn more, such as John Ruthrauff, a volunteer fireman from Takoma Park, Maryland.
"The frustration I have is that there's so little general information for the public," he said. "A very good idea which I had not heard before was organizing some plan at the community level: we do have a block where we could be organizing here."
Laura, a student from Japan majoring in Peace and Corporate Resolution is interested in crisis management.
Laura: I was concerned about how to take care of children when something happens. So it was very useful to me.
Robin Rupli: "Have you done anything to prepare in the event of some kind of crisis?
Laura: I have bought extra water and food but I haven't bought any gas masks or something like that. I was hoping for a peaceful resolution at the last minute.
Crisis management expert Hrach Gregorian said he was encouraged by the audience turnout and response to the forum.
Hrach Gregorian: Tonight was excellent. And we plan to do this a few more times in other municipalities in order to spread the word and also to provide people with resources so they know where to go.
Robin Rupli: Do you think this interest is limited to places like Washington and New York or are people in smaller towns feeling the same urgency?
Hrach Gregorian: I think that people in towns are feeling the same urgency and, to boot, they're feeling somewhat isolated. So it's extremely important to get out to them, as well. They feel everything is concentrating on the big cities and the big infrastructure projects and they wonder about themselves. So I think that there is a great deal of interest and fear in rural places that need to be addressed.
Robin Rupli: So your feeling is that most people are not in denial over this?
Hrach Gregorian: I think people are naturally in denial, given the nature of this society and what we have experienced historically. And I think that's going to be a hard thing to overcome. But I do think people are immensely resourceful and creative as well. So they will find ways to deal with some of these problems. I'm mostly concerned with group reaction and panic and a few other things that I've seen happen and how to avoid that.
Robin Rupli: I noticed you made no mention of duct tape or plastic sheets tonight.
Hrach Gregorian: I think that if that is something that is comforting to people they should do it. I personally would prefer a wet towel on the attic floor of my house because most of these things blow away in a fairly quick order, so these types of plans for me, personally, are not particularly reassuring.
Hrach Gregorian's crisis management company, Hammer and Gregorian trains professionals to deal with a wide variety of emergencies from hostage-taking to attempted suicides. The firm's main focus today is on preventing and surviving terrorist attacks.