Investigations of the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington are revealing clues that terrorists may have planned further attacks using chemical or biological agents. This is prompting an urgent review of emergency procedures at both the federal and local level. In south Florida, emergency officials say they are well equipped for small-scale accidents involving hazardous materials, but would be hard-pressed to deal effectively with a major catastrophe.
Across the country, the alarms are being sounded regarding America's vulnerability to chemical and biological attack and the state of preparations to deal with such a disaster. In Washington, the director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Lee Hamilton, addressed the subject at a congressional hearing on terrorism Wednesday. According to Hamilton, a former congressman himself, medical supplies needed to combat such a threat are in short supply. "The vaccines for smallpox and anthrax need to be dramatically increased by the thousand-fold, because we are way short there," he said.
His words were echoed by former deputy defense secretary John Hamre, who stresses America must be prepared for horrific attacks that were almost unthinkable just a few years ago. "We really need to figure out how to stop an infectious agent when it is intentionally introduced in this country," he said. "Anthrax has been most-weaponized because it is a dry agent and it is easy to disperse. Smallpox is probably the most-controlled but the most serious because it is so highly infectious and lethal. You are going to have to design a playbook for every one of these."
But while planning goes forward at the federal level, it is local officials that will likely be the first to respond in the event of any chemical or biological attack. In Miami-Dade County, Emergency Management Coordinator Robert Marton says crews have worked hard to improve both their readiness and capability.
"In the event of a chemical incident," explains Mr. Marton, "Miami-Dade County has three very qualified hazardous materials teams that can deal with a lot of issues: contamination, patients who have been exposed to a lot of these products."
But Mr. Marton admits emergency teams in south Florida would almost certainly be overwhelmed in the event of a major catastrophe. According to him, there simply is not enough personnel or equipment to deal with a devastating chemical or biological attack. "If it was a nerve agent, like what was used in Tokyo [in 1995], that might pose a problem," he said. "In order to buy pharmaceuticals that would be needed for an extremely large-scale incident, the cost would be astronomical. The medication expires. It's not like you are buying a fire truck that is good for 20 years. I think the issue confronting emergency responders is the availability of federal funding to make these types of purchases. If the funding were available, we could be a lot more prepared than we currently are."
In the wake of the September 11 attacks, Congress approved a $40-billion package to fight terrorism and prepare for any future calamities. Miami-Dade County and other localities across the country hope to get a portion of that funding to boost emergency operations. The message is simple: hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.