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Fears of Terrorism Lessen for 4th of July Celebrations - 2003-07-03

The terrorism fears of a year ago appear to have receded somewhat as millions of Americans prepare to celebrate the July 4 Independence holiday.

Ever since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the presence of police and bomb-sniffing dogs at Fourth of July celebrations around the country have become as commonplace as hot dogs and apple pie.

But this year there appears to be slightly less emphasis on the potential of a terrorist attack.

The terror alert level remains at yellow, indicating an elevated risk of attack. Last year, the alert level was raised just before the July 4 holiday, adding a sense of apprehension to the celebrations.

Police will be out in force at fireworks displays and concerts in major cities like New York and Washington. But budget problems in many states and cities around the country mean fewer security personnel will be on duty compared to last year.

Travel forecasters predict more people will take to the nation's highways this year for a Fourth of July vacation. That may indicate Americans are becoming more comfortable in resuming normal lives in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

"Americans are ready to get out," says Terry Trippler who monitors developments in the airline industry. "The war [in Iraq] is over, the economy seems to be on the rebound, terrorism seems to be abated somewhat."

But even as the threat of a domestic attack may be abating somewhat, a new report warns that the government is woefully unprepared to deal with the aftermath of a catastrophic attack.

A study by the Council on Foreign Relations says the Bush administration and Congress have not provided enough money to fund so-called first responders - the firefighters, police and emergency medical personnel who would be first on the scene of a terrorist attack.

"We are drastically underfunded and dangerously unprepared if we have a significant attack in terms of those emergency responders on the front lines, which is the fire, the police, the emergency medical people, hospitals and the like," said Norman Ornstein, a member of the Independent Task Force on Emergency Responders.

The task force wants the government to spend $98 billion to improve the emergency response system over the next five years. Homeland security officials say that figure is grossly exaggerated. They contend that the $27 billion planned on funding first responders over the next several years should be adequate.