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Express-News: Lifestyle & Features Preparing for disasters By Michelle Koidin San Antonio Express-News

Web Posted : 10/01/2001 12:00 AM

All of a sudden, the question doesn't seem so crazy. Do I need a gas mask?

The answer, according to disaster-relief agencies and terrorism experts, is no.

Average Americans, they say, should have on hand in case of a national emergency the same things they should have in case of flood or other disasters: a couple of gallons of drinking water, canned food, flashlights, batteries, a battery-powered radio, a first-aid kit and a few other things they probably already have around the house.

The answer comes without hesitation from officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the state Division of Emergency Management, the San Antonio Fire Department and the American Red Cross.

It comes as military-surplus and outdoors-equipment stores are increasing prices of gas masks with anxious residents buying every last one. At two San Antonio stores awaiting new shipments of Israeli-made masks, people have been pre-paying $59.98 per mask, many ordering five or more.

The run has gone on here and around the country even though some masks come with filters that last only three hours and disclaimers that they don't block out many possible killers in the air. Filters are selling out, too.

"I'd just rather be prepared than not be prepared," Michael Murphy, a 40-year-old San Antonio businessman, said as he picked up gas masks for himself, his wife, their three children ages 11 and younger, his parents and his in-laws. "I'm an old Boy Scout I like to be prepared."

At the National Outdoors Inc. store on San Pedro Avenue, Alex Brochon added his order of six masks to the list of 42 names. "I wouldn't say I'm panicking, but better safe than sorry," said the 38-year-old artist.

It's those haunting images of Sept. 11. Talk of chemical and biological warfare by the country's leaders. News that Osama bin Laden is suspected of trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction. The grounding of crop-dusters.

"This is not an immediate threat in my view," said Jason Pate, a terrorism specialist at California's Monterey Institute of International Studies.

"It's really, really premature to be worried about gas masks and those types of exotic defenses," he said. "The chemical and biological threat is there, but as the events of the last couple of weeks have shown us, we're still in the era of the truck bombing and plane hijacking."

The fact that one of the suspected hijackers had shown interest in small farm planes does not mean a chemical or biological attack was in the works, Pate said.

He believes the terrorists simply were looking for vulnerabilities in the American aviation system and says they could have been considering filling a crop-duster with explosives. He said investigative reports indicate the suspect didn't ask about sprayers or nozzles or other essential devices.

"People are very jumpy right now. We're very alarmed. But, generally speaking, I didn't see the crop-duster issue as a strong indication of chemical or biological terrorism," he said.

"If they really were worried about using a crop-duster to deliver that type of agent, they would have asked a whole different set of questions."

Such an attack also would be difficult to pull off. The one time chemicals were used successfully in a terrorist attack, by a Japanese doomsday cult trying to kill many people, 12 died and more than a thousand were injured with the release of sarin nerve agent in a Tokyo subway.

"My feeling is that one should not go out and buy a gas mask at this point, build a bomb shelter or get immunized against smallpox," said Dr. Richard Levinson, associate executive director of the American Public Health Association. "We know that terrorists camps and terrorists countries are working on both chemical and biological weapons. No question about it. But the delivery of these weapons poses a number of technological barriers and make them less likely to be used at this point."

In the United States, Pate said, it's a "medium- to long-term" threat.

State and federal officials have been preparing for the last few years, coordinating drills with local police, firefighters and doctors responding to mock chemical attacks. In San Antonio and Bexar County, there have been four exercises since 1999.

Don Rogers, spokesman for the state Division of Emergency Management, said his agency is recommending that each household have a "preparedness kit" to be used in case of any disaster in line with advice from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the fire department and the Red Cross.

Rogers ventured a fear that vendors of gas masks seem to be capitalizing on people's fear.

The disaster-relief agencies suggest getting six quarts of water per person (enough for three days) and filling a big waterproof container with the following items: valuable papers, identification, personal-hygiene items, eyeglasses or hearing aids if needed, prescription medications, a change of clothes, a blanket and a first-aid kit. They also suggest having canned foods and a manual can opener.

"We really push an all-hazards approach so that no matter what happens, your family is prepared," said Carrie Moorehead, a spokeswoman at Federal Emergency Management Agency's regional office in Denton.

She also recommended that families discuss a disaster plan, making a list of emergency phone numbers and deciding on a place to meet up.

Tommy Thompson, district chief for the fire department, said San Antonians should have at home whatever they would need for a big storm.

"There are people out there that worry, and I guess that's human nature," he said. "But we don't anticipate any type of serious emergency situation coming up that will require gas masks and things of that nature. If we thought there was any necessity for that, we would be out there pushing that."

Linda Garmon said she considered getting a gas mask but now believes the type being sold wouldn't be of much help. Instead, she has stocked up on everything that's recommended and more: canned vegetables and fruits, Spam, at least 4 gallons of water, plus charcoal, propane, candles, batteries.

"If I use it, that's fine. If I don't, that's fine," said Garmon, 58, office manager at Lonesome Dove General Store near Elmendorf. "I do think we need to be prepared. We don't need to stick our head in the sand. We need to think."

For some people, said the Red Cross' Kathryn Keck, counseling may be more beneficial than a gas mask.

"This is a case of people's security being shaken," said Keck, spokeswoman of San Antonio Red Cross chapter. "This is happening in communities all over America right now. If people are really feeling scared, really feeling insecure, the Red Cross can put you in touch with mental-health specialists."


-- Tess (, October 01, 2001


He believes the terrorists simply were looking for vulnerabilities in the American aviation system and says they could have been considering filling a crop-duster with explosives. He said investigative reports indicate the suspect didn't ask about sprayers or nozzles or other essential devices.

Mr. Pate is just flat wrong on his facts, and conclusions. He must be from the Tommy Thompson school of dis-information.

I have read several reports, plus have seen Network TV news reports, about Atta (flew one of the 2 into the WTC) and his conversations with the owners of crop duster services. There were clearly question about the holding tank capacity, operation of the spray nozzles, and other similar questions.

He also tried to BUY a crop dusting plane, using a US FEDERAL grant!!

It doesn't make a lot of sense that one would look for a very specialized plane like a crop duster -- one of just couple thousand, that requires special licences to own and operate, when any old twin engine cesna/beechcraft could carry far more explosives.

This guy is talking through his A**.

-- Jackson Brown (, October 02, 2001.

Hi Jackson, I tend to agree with you on this. Also, did you have a look at the other post that I put up after this one about the FBI now investigating and taking samples in oklahoma because several fishermen saw a low flying plane drop a substance from it into the water supply? Yep, this just happened today. It was in the water supply area also.. They had to divert over to another supply area because of this until the FBI deems the water supply safe. Will put up another link or two if I can find them.

I think there definately is a cause for concern here.

-- Tess (, October 02, 2001.

I can personally think up at least four methods of delivering deadly and highly contagious viruses into a large city easily, cheaply, undetectably, effectively, and without high-technology. There are so many such viruses in existence. Obviously, I'm not going to specify these methods, so as not to give freelance would-be terrorists any ideas. Yes, those preparing the payload and the distributor would likely get infected and die; but with suicide operatives available, this isn't a major obstacle.

Yes, the threat of biological germ warfare is "clear and present," just as the U.S. Government has officially declared. Especially after the same entity's clear policy for the Y2K threat, to prevent panic at any cost; this official announcement has very high credibility indeed.

Now this "prevent panic" policy is re-asserting itself, after the "cat is out of the bag", by discouraging personal preparedness: Yes, the threat is major, but there's nothing anyone can do about it, so why prepare/panic? Deja Vu Y2K!

-- Robert Riggs (, October 02, 2001.

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