The fallout shelter is closed ?

How prepared is Portland for a terrorist attack? How prepared should we be?

Chris Barry

Imagine the following nightmarish scenario:

’N Sync, the famous boy band, is booked to play a show at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland. The day of the concert, Mayor Karen Geraghty presents the group with the key to the city during a ceremony on the roof deck of One City Center in Monument Square (that’s not the nightmarish part).

Thousands of fans mob the square to get a glimpse of their idols, but their screams of excitement become screams of terror when a bomb explodes in their midst. Hundreds of people are killed or injured immediately. A cloud of thick, black smoke hovers over the scene as panicked survivors run in every direction.

As horrible as this situation is, the implications are considerably more terrifying in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Of particular concern is the possibility the hypothetical explosion was caused by a “dirty bomb,” a conventional explosive laden with chemical, biological or nuclear materials — materials the federal government fears might be accessible to terrorist groups here and abroad.

But how likely is such an attack to strike Portland, as opposed to larger cities? Why would terrorists want to pick on us? “It would be the traumatic impact,” said Art Cleaves, director of the Maine Emergency Management Agency. Cleaves said such a strike “would send a signal to people across the nation: If we’re not safe in Bangor or Portland, then where will we be safe from all this?

“It would put us in a tailspin, economically and otherwise, much more traumatically than we’ve ever been before.”

For that reason, Cleaves said, the state is devoting more time and effort in preparing for terrorism, altering an already existing all-purpose plan used during natural disasters. “It’s our business to plan for the worst,” he said. “Training [to respond] to terrorism is similar to training for hurricane, blizzards and ice storms.”

How prepared is Portland for a terrorist attack?

Fred LaMontagne, acting chief of Portland’s fire department and the senior staff member of the city’s newly formed Terrorism Preparedness Task Force, outlined the following response to the hypothetical dirty-bomb explosion in Monument Square:

Every on-duty firefighter and cop in the city rushes to the scene, while off-duty personnel are called to assist. Given the possibility the bomb may contain more than TNT, authorities direct the police to quarantine the entire peninsula in an attempt to keep any contamination from spreading.

A call goes out to the Civil Support Team, an Army National Guard Unit stationed in Waterville. There, a crew of experts trained in the detection of weapons of mass destruction board a waiting Black Hawk helicopter and head to Portland.

Meanwhile, local emergency workers set up a mobile decontamination station several blocks from the bomb site. Survivors are herded into a prefabricated tunnel, doused with water from fire hydrants, ordered to remove their clothes, dosed with water again and given clean medical scrubs delivered by local hospitals. After being declared decontaminated, the victims are transported to regional medical facilities for further treatment.

The National Guard helicopter lands on Commercial Street, and the support team rushes to the scene wearing protective gear and carrying high-tech detection equipment. If initial tests indicate the bomb was dirty, the team uses a secure, satellite-communications system to notify the Maine Emergency Management Agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Centers for Disease Control.

If tests show the blast spewed radioactive materials, 60,000 doses of potassium iodine — a medicine that sends extra iodine to the thyroid gland to help prevent future, nuclear-related disease — can arrive on the scene from a state stockpile within an hour. State police and public-health workers then proceed to distribute the drug to everyone who’s potentially been exposed.

If chemical or biological agents are detected, other drugs from a federal storage site in Atlanta can arrive, via the Air Force, within eight hours.

The ’N Sync concert is, of course, canceled (for many, the one bright side of the tragedy).

Caught off guard

Maine’s last government-run bomb shelter: Cumberland County Emergency Management Agency’s headquarters in Windham.

The events of Sept. 11 were a wake-up call for LaMontagne and other public safety officials. Before the attacks, “We thought we were capable of handling most anything thrown at us,” he said. “[The attacks] have changed the focus of public safety officials as a whole.

“After Sept. 11, we found we had to look at our ability to mobilize in case of a catastrophic event, such as a weapon of mass destruction, when we’d be looking at 2- or 3- or 4,000 victims,” he continued. “Before, our biggest scenario involved 200 or 300 people.”

The threat of terrorism has exposed some serious deficiencies in the city’s ability to respond.

For example, on Sept. 11, members of the Cumberland County Emergency Management Agency discovered they were unable to communicate with Maine Medical Center in Portland over a secure radio frequency — a problem that has since been remedied. Officials also realized they had made no provisions to alert non-English speakers of any threat to public safety. In addition, George Flaherty, director of the county’s emergency management office, said some agencies unaccustomed to working together had trouble getting along. “There were prima donnas,” he said, refusing to name names. But “after Sept. 11, everyone joined the team.”

That team has its work cut out for it.

Prior to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, only a half-dozen Portland firefighters on any given shift were trained to decontaminate people following a hazardous incident. By the end of January, at cost to the city of roughly $30,000, every firefighter will be qualified in those procedures.

Even now, most of the emergency personnel responding to that hypothetical bomb blast would not have the outfits and equipment necessary to protect them from chemical, biological or nuclear materials. The state recently received a $1.4 million federal grant to pay for more gear and training, but that is only a first step in filling the need for sophisticated equipment.

“Right now, we’re vulnerable, because we don’t have those folks trained yet,” said Cleaves, of the state emergency agency.

Portland’s terrorism task force, made up of about 70 city employees, is “trying to build relationships with key people in the community, so if we had a terrorist incident, we’d have networks and procedures in place to minimize the impact on citizens,” LaMontagne said.

The task force is currently working with Maine Med and Mercy Hospital to develop plans to transport and treat large numbers of people contaminated by radioactive or biological agents. Health-care workers are being trained in how to assist in the decontamination process and how to treat illnesses caused by weapons of mass destruction. The state Bureau of Health launched an initiative in December to train about 250 health-care providers to respond to bio-terrorism. Over 300 more are expected to receive such training in January.

Emergency planners are worried about the threat of smallpox, hoof-and-mouth disease, anthrax, botulism and other biological weapons. Under the current system, an outbreak of contagious disease wouldn’t be noticed until large numbers of elderly, children and people with immunity problems started dying. The state hopes to get federal money to hire additional epidemiologists (doctors that track the incidence and control of disease). The Bureau of Health currently has only two such doctors, but wants to add seven more.

Some city facilities and private buildings have been designated by Portland’s task force as mass decontamination stations, especially for incidents that occur during the winter (hosing victims down outdoors in freezing temperatures doesn’t do them much good). The city and the county are also updating the region’s mutual-aid agreement, a document that dictates responsibilities and liabilities for municipalities during a crisis. The agreement hadn’t been reviewed since 1998.

How much is all this costing? It’s hard to say at this point. “There’s additional financial costs we couldn’t have planned for, and it’s hard to put a definitive number on [the cost],” LaMontagne said. “We’re hoping to be compensated through the Department of Justice or Homeland Security with money that will trickle down to local municipalities.”

LaMontagne said the bill for increased preparedness has to be paid, even though Portland might never become a terrorist target. “To have terrorism impact your community doesn’t mean you have to have a terrorist event,” he said. “Everybody’s heightened awareness causes an increase in calls. People have been receiving envelopes with powder in them forever. Until October, no one gave it a second thought.”

“Terrorism isn’t a highly likely scenario,” said Cleaves, “but I don’t want to not be prepared for it.”

Government and industry leaders have started to listen to the emergency managers. Cleaves said he got little response last year when he offered training sessions in handling chemical or biological disasters. “I was knocking on doors trying to draw attention to the fact that we must plan for these things,” he said. “There weren’t many people listening. They told me they’d get to it tomorrow.”

“We’re not at 100 percent,” Flaherty said. “Through table-top and field exercises, we identify how we have to respond and our deficiencies. No matter how well the plan is written and how many times you do the exercise, people change. You’ll always find some things that need to be fixed or tweaked.”

What, me worry?

Hose ‘em down: Portland’s acting fire chief, Fred LaMontagne.

While Greater Portland wouldn’t seem to be at the top of any terrorist hit list, Cleaves said the area does have vulnerabilities. “There are many industries that rely on chemicals, and those could be used as weapons,” he said. “Some of those facilities are rather [unguarded].” He declined to be more specific.

“Drive around. You’ll see them,” he said. “They’re no mystery to anybody. You’ll see tanks. They’re quite glaring.”

Before Sept. 11, Cleaves said, authorities were more concerned about accidental releases of chemicals. Now, the planning is going into preventing attacks. Some industries have responded by erecting barriers around chemical storage sites. “They’re better guarded today,” Cleaves said, “but more needs to be done.”

He wants the federal government to pay for more security personnel. “Across the state, we don’t have enough guards on infrastructure that are dangerous,” he said. “In Portland, you don’t have enough police or firefighters.”

There has been some criticism of the personnel the state has now, such as the National Guard’s Civil Support Team stationed in Waterville. A report from the General Accounting Office concluded such teams (there are 11 nationwide, with the Waterville squad being the newest) have “continued problems regarding readiness, doctrine and roles.” Each team costs $5 million to set up and $2.5 million annually to maintain.

Cleaves doesn’t believe the criticism. “The team in Waterville is essential,” he said. “They scored 100 percent on all their qualification [tests and drills.]”

Anti-nuclear activist Bill Linnell of Portland is particularly concerned about security — or the lack thereof — at Maine Yankee, the decommissioned nuclear power plant in Wiscasset, where highly radioactive spent-fuel rods are currently cooling in special pools while the federal government continues the contentious process of finding a permanent location to store them.

Linnell sees Maine Yankee as a disaster waiting to happen. A team of less than a dozen terrorists could attack the Wiscasset facility from land, water or the air, he said, and cause the release of a radioactive cloud that, with the right wind direction and weather, could reach Portland in a couple of hours.

“All a terrorist would have to do is cause an explosion and that would raise hell,” he said. “It would devastate our fishing industry and tourism. Maine would no longer be Vacationland. We’d be Radiationland.”

Cleaves questioned the likelihood of an attack on Maine Yankee, especially when there are active nuclear plants closer to major population centers that present more tempting targets. “It would be very difficult for the terrorists to pull that scenario off,” said Cleaves. “We’ve thought about it. I’ve been reassured by the NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] that [terrorists] can’t get enough radiation up and into the air to cause enough of an incident.”

Linnell is skeptical. “You can’t trust the NRC,” he said. “A nuclear plant, even a closed one, is a bomb. The government is silent on the threat. [The focus on] chemical weapons is a just a distraction.” Linnell blames nuclear-industry lobbyists for hiding the dangers of such facilities from the public. He believes the spent fuel rods should be kept in dry-cask storage, rather than in the cooling pools that require a constant supply of power to prevent a meltdown.

Linnell also wants the governor to send the National Guard to protect the storage building housing the rods. “A terrorist could drive through the front gate and easily take out the rent-a-cop drinking coffee,” he said.

Cleaves admitted the guards at the nuclear site are unarmed, but insisted an attack on Maine Yankee was not “a plausible threat. You’re not going to see me spending much energy on concentrating on Maine Yankee. I’m more concerned with other incidents that could kill or injure or harm many more people.”

Incidents such as contamination of the water supply.

“We think it would be very difficult to introduce enough chemical or biological agents into Sebago Lake [Portland’s source of drinking water] to have an impact,” Cleaves said. “And it would be very difficult to do without being spotted.”

The real danger, Cleaves said, is where the water pipes from the lake actually head into Portland. “If you were able to get to those, you could introduce the [poisons],” he said. “So now we’re talking about adding extra security at those key locations.”

Scant shelter

What would you do if Portland became a terrorist target? Don’t feel bad if you don’t know. Most people don’t seem to have a clue about a specific plan.

Kevin Deegan, a 30-year-old waiter from Portland, hasn’t thought much about a local terrorist attack. “I guess I’d run away as fast as possible.”

Ready for anything: George Flaherty, Cumberland County’s director of emergency preparedness.

John Penrose, 50, a commercial property owner from Yarmouth, said that after Sept. 11, he and his wife discussed what to do during disaster. He would try to assist the victims, then make sure his wife and kids were OK. Although he doubts terrorists would attack Portland, he’s glad emergency planners are looking at possible scenarios. “For the police and fire departments, it’s all about training,” he said. “Hopefully, it will never be used. But we have to be ready.”

Portland City Councilor Jack Dawson, chair of the terrorism task force, said he would head home. “I’d make sure my family and home are stable and prepared ... then reach out to see how we could help others.”

If the hypothetical dirty bomb exploded downtown, don’t run for refuge in the nearest public fallout shelter. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the government stopped outfitting church and school basements with the food and water thought necessary for survival in case of a nuclear attack (although, in some places, such as the Cathedral School, signs marking such shelters are still in place.)

Flaherty works in the last, functioning bomb shelter in Maine (no, it’s not open to the public), a 60-by-130-foot, windowless bunker near the state prison in Windham. Built at the height of the Cold War and designed to house 75 county employees, the facility — with its reinforced concrete walls, ceilings and foundation — can withstand any attack, except a direct hit by a nuclear missile, Flaherty said. During a crisis, the bunker, equipped with backup generators, private well and access to the prison’s food supply, becomes the region’s command center.

Rather than building a bunker, emergency managers recommend citizens set up primary and secondary locations to meet family members in case of an attack. “You’re no good to anybody else until you know your family is safe,” said Cleaves. He recommends keeping at least a three-day supply of food and water at home at all times. A battery-operated radio and at least a half-tank of gas in the car are also good ideas. That’s not just in case al-Qaida comes calling. Those supplies are handy during natural disasters, too.

“Don’t panic,” said LaMontagne, when asked what people should do in the event of a terrorist strike. “Close your doors and windows and tune to a local news or radio station. Listen to what we tell you to do. That’s critical.”

As far as preventing domestic terrorist attacks, Cleaves stresses that now familiar term: “vigilance.”

“Something could happen,” Cleaves said. “Keep a watchful eye in your community and your neighborhood. Be more aware. If you see suspicious behavior, report it .… You should know who your neighbors are.”

Despite all their warnings, emergency managers don’t want to sound alarmist. “The terrorists are using weapons we haven’t previously identified as weapons,” Flaherty said. “They’re using fear, and they’ve used it marvelously. They may never do anything else. But we never know.”


Chris Barry can be e-mailed at chris_barry@hotmail.com.