- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 11, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 11 (UPI) — The Department of Homeland Security's move last week to heighten the nation's terrorism threat level is one more effort by federal agencies and private organizations to provide information on what individuals can do to keep their families safe in the event of a biological and chemical attack, or some other disaster.

"There are so many available sources of information that you could refer to that will give you and your family and your businesses and your schools some comfort to know that in the eventuality, with the possibility that something might happen, you have taken some precautionary measures or taken some steps to minimize the damage or perhaps to avoid it altogether," said Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge as he announced an increase in the nation's terror threat level.

As the nation teeters on the brink of war with a country that may or may not have biological or chemical weapons, the flurry of Web sites, pamphlets and fact sheets have become increasingly more important as people ask what steps they should take in case of a terrorist attack.

"One of the thoughts that I would just simply share with you, it's probably not a bad idea to sit down and just arrange some kind of a contact plan, that if an event occurred you want to make sure you can — the family wants to get in touch with one another," Ridge said.

During the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, land and cellular telephone lines were jammed for hours as people tried to get in touch with their colleagues and loved ones.

Last week, President George W. Bush raised the national terror threat level to orange status, or a high risk of terrorist attacks. The five terror threat levels are: green = low; blue = guarded; yellow = elevated; orange = high; and red = severe.

It is the second time since the administration adopted the five-level, color-coded threat system, but each time it has left the public with questions about how the threat level will affect their everyday lives.

Brian Roehrkasse, a Homeland Security Department spokesman, told United Press International Tuesday that the information has been available for years, but that it has become a primary focus of his agency to organize the disaster efforts of federal and state governments and private sector organizations.

"It is the fundamental responsibility and the fundamental mission of our agency to ensure that people are prepared," Roehrkasse said.

The Department of Homeland Security posted on its Web site Tuesday fact sheets detailing how to assemble a disaster supply kit for a possible biological attack, including a battery-powered commercial radio with extra batteries, nonperishable food and drinking water, duct tape and scissors, plastic for the doors, windows and vents, a first aid kit and sanitation supplies — soap, water and bleach.

During an attack, the agency recommends seeking shelter in a room without windows, turning off all ventilation, and listening to the radio for instructions. After an attack it suggests seeking medical attention at the sign of symptom of agent exposure, removing contaminated clothing and washing with warm soapy water.

The DHS site also details information on what citizens should do in case they are exposed to what is commonly called a "dirty bomb," radioactive material disbursed with explosives.

Roehrkasse stressed the importance of having a radio with batteries so one can tune into the Emergency Broadcasting System, a service of local radio and television stations, for information on what to do.

The American Red Cross, the premier organization that has provided disaster relief services around the world, assumed its authority to provide disaster relief in 1905, when it was chartered by Congress to "carry on a system of national and international relief in time of peace and apply the same in mitigating the sufferings caused by pestilence, famine, fire, floods and other great national calamities, and to devise and carry on measures for preventing the same."

The agency has a section of its Web site dedicated to "family disaster planning" that also tells how to prepare disaster supply kit, food supplies, water storage and an evacuation plan.

"Disaster can strike quickly and without warning. It can force you to evacuate your neighborhood or confine you to your home. What would you do if basic services — water, gas, electricity or telephones — were cut off? Local officials and relief workers will be on the scene after a disaster, but they cannot reach everyone right away," the American Red Cross site says.

The organization has its disaster information translated into a host of languages including Arabic, Cambodian, Chinese, French, Farsi, Hmong, Laotian, Tagalog, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish and Vietnamese.

American Red Cross also advises potential homeowners to examine their new dwelling. It asks whether the house is near a river or creek that may flood, whether there are smoke alarms, locks on the windows and doors and at least two ways to exit the residence.

The National Institutes of Health, the nation's top research facility, has on its MedLine Web site a "Citizen's Guide to Disaster Preparedness" and "Your Family Disaster Plan: 4 Steps to Safety," from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and a "Family Readiness Kit: Preparing to Handle Disasters" from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

But even as major federal agencies are distributing information, colleges and universities have their own plans for evacuations, and have provided their faculty and students with information on what to do in the event of an attack.

The University of Illinois Extension program has a disaster resources Web site that has "10 Steps for Preparing for a Disaster," a family protection quiz and a roles for the university's staff in the event of a disaster.

The University of Maryland in College Park has a disaster plan for its staff and for salvaging important, historical library materials. Its Cooperative Extension Program has a Web site fact sheet on what to tell children when disaster strikes.

American University, less than five miles away from the Vice President Dick Cheney's residence in Washington, has a disaster resources list on its Web site that includes telephone numbers for five bus companies.

But with disaster comes the mental and psychological aftermath.

The MedLine site has cyber-brochures on "Common Reactions to Trauma" from the National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorders, "Coping with Uncertainty," from the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, and the "Mental Health Aspects of Terrorism" from the Center for Mental Health Services. There is even a fact sheet on funerals and memorials as a part of recovery from the American Psychiatric Association.

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